Is That Jesus in Your Toast?

In last Sunday’s NYT Sunday Review, a piece under this title by Ana Gantman and Jay van Bavel (NYU Psychology). The lead-in:

Take a close look at your breakfast. Is that Jesus staring out at you from your toast?

Such apparitions can be as lucrative as they are seemingly miraculous. In 2004, a Florida woman named Diane Duyser sold a decade-old grilled cheese sandwich that bore a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary. She got $28,000 for it on eBay.

The psychological phenomenon of seeing something significant in an ambiguous stimulus is called pareidolia. Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwiches and other pareidolia remind us that almost any object is open to multiple interpretations. Less understood, however, is what drives some interpretations over others.

(Pareidolia was treated on this blog back in 2012, in a piece that took as its starting point the perception of a man (or a rabbit or whatever) on the face of the moon and went on from there.)

Back to Gantman and van Bavel. They continue in the Times:

In a forthcoming paper in the journal Cognition, we hope to shed some light on that question. In a series of experiments, we examined whether awareness of perceptually ambiguous stimuli was enhanced by the presence of moral content.

… Some of the strings of letters we flashed were words, others were not. Importantly, some of the words we flashed had moral content (virtue, steal, God) and others did not (virtual, steel, pet).

… Over the course of three experiments, we found that participants correctly identified strings of letters as words more often when they formed moral words (69 percent accuracy) than when they formed nonmoral words (65 percent accuracy). This suggested that moral content gave a “boost” to perceptually ambiguous stimuli — a shortcut to conscious awareness. We call this phenomenon the “moral pop-out effect.”

Their piece has some rather speculative interpretations of this effect, so I reserve judgment. And while I’m trusting them as card-carrying psychologists to have found that the differences between the two sets of words is statistically significant, still, they look small in an absolute sense.

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