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Cognition does not affect perception: Evaluating the evidence for “top-down” effects

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 July 2015

Chaz Firestone
Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT
Brian J. Scholl
Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT


What determines what we see? In contrast to the traditional “modular” understanding of perception, according to which visual processing is encapsulated from higher-level cognition, a tidal wave of recent research alleges that states such as beliefs, desires, emotions, motivations, intentions, and linguistic representations exert direct, top-down influences on what we see. There is a growing consensus that such effects are ubiquitous, and that the distinction between perception and cognition may itself be unsustainable. We argue otherwise: None of these hundreds of studies – either individually or collectively – provides compelling evidence for true top-down effects on perception, or “cognitive penetrability.” In particular, and despite their variety, we suggest that these studies all fall prey to only a handful of pitfalls. And whereas abstract theoretical challenges have failed to resolve this debate in the past, our presentation of these pitfalls is empirically anchored: In each case, we show not only how certain studies could be susceptible to the pitfall (in principle), but also how several alleged top-down effects actually are explained by the pitfall (in practice). Moreover, these pitfalls are perfectly general, with each applying to dozens of other top-down effects. We conclude by extracting the lessons provided by these pitfalls into a checklist that future work could use to convincingly demonstrate top-down effects on visual perception. The discovery of substantive top-down effects of cognition on perception would revolutionize our understanding of how the mind is organized; but without addressing these pitfalls, no such empirical report will license such exciting conclusions.

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