The visual perception of distance ratios in physical space

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Abstract

Past studies have consistently demonstrated that human observers cannot accurately perceive environmental distances. Even so, we obviously detect sufficient spatial information to meet the demands of everyday life. In the current experiment, ten younger adults (mean age was 21.8 years) and ten older adults (mean age was 72.3 years) estimated distance ratios in physical space. On any given trial, observers judged how long one distance interval was relative to another. The 18 stimulus ratios ranged from 1.0 to 9.5; the observers judged each stimulus ratio three times. The average correlation coefficient relating actual distance ratios to perceived ratios was identical (r = 0.87) for both younger and older age groups. Despite this strong relationship between perception and reality, the judgments of many individual observers were inaccurate. For example, ten percent of the observers overestimated the stimulus ratios, while fifty percent underestimated the stimulus ratios. Although both under- and overestimation occurred in the current experiment, the results nevertheless demonstrate that human adults can reliably compare environmental distances in different directions.

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