The New York Times:
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.
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.
We quickly flashed strings of letters on a computer screen and asked participants to indicate whether they believed each string formed a word or not. To ensure that the letter strings were perceptually ambiguous, we flashed them between approximately 40 and 70 milliseconds. (When they were presented for too long, people easily saw all the letter strings and demonstrated close to 100 percent accuracy. When they were presented too quickly, people were unable to see the words and performed “at chance,” around 50 percent accuracy.)
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