Seeing May Be Believing, But Feeling Is the Truth
Every year, museums bear the cost of repairing damage caused to artworks by visitors touching them. Why do we want to touch objects that we can clearly see? What is it that touch provides that vision does not?
These questions are relevant to a variety of fields: from technology, where pressing buttons is more satisfying than simply selecting on a screen, to clinical studies of compulsive patients who check taps or locks by touch, even though they can see that they are closed. It also runs deep in philosophy, with Rene Descartes and others wondering why touch seemed so special and more reliable.
We have recently published the first empirical evidence to show that, when faced with ambiguous information, we trust our fingertips more than our eyes. We used the vertical-horizontal illusion which operates equally in both vision and touch, where two matches form an inverted T-shape. When the two matches are equal in length, we consistently see and feel the vertical one as longer than the horizontal one. Participants explored a range of stimuli that differed in the strength of the illusion and degree of ambiguity. Where the illusion was strongest, although judgments were less accurate for touch than vision, participants reported higher confidence for touch. When the evidence was strong, they trusted sight more. This suggests that the possible origins of tactile fact-checking is not just the need to have a second kind of sanity check on reality but comes from the specific kind of reassurance that touch gives. Seeing is believing, but feeling is the truth.
- Merle Fairhurst
- Anais Chung