The Expectation Effect


Examining this picture horizontally, you will likely see  “A, B, C”; yet looking at it vertically, you see “12, 13, 14”, turning the “B” into a “13”. Most will assume that perception is a clear-cut linear process – that is, external stimuli reach our visual system, which passively registers what is “being seen” and then this information is further processed by our cognitive functions and identification etc takes place.

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that looks at the human mind and behavior as a whole. When trying to make sense of the world around us, Gestalt psychology suggests that we do not simply focus on every small component. Instead, our minds tend to perceive objects as part of a greater whole and as elements of more complex systems. This school of psychology played a major role in the modern development of the study of human sensation and perception.

Gestalt Theory describes perception as a two-step process involving “perceptual organization” first, and “perceptual identification” second. During the first stage, our mind organises its visual field: differentiate foreground and background, delineate contours, etc. Only after this process is completed does a second stage start, during which our thinking (and especially our memory) helps us recognize the elements of our visual environment.

Notwithstanding this, as the example above illustrates, it would appear that the second stage (Perceptual Identification) can actually alter the first one – this means perception can be reversed, and we end up selecting and arranging external stimuli according to certain predispositions, including expectations (but also motivation, emotion, past experience, etc).

It is not that we simply “interpret” what we see based on what we expect: what we expect changes what we actually see. In the example above, whether we are expecting a letter or a number directly makes us see either a “B” or a “13”. According to Vernon (1955), this phenomenon can be explained by Bartlett’s (1932) Schema Theory as “we perceive certain aspects of the perceptual field in accordance with the schematic category of events to which at the moment they seem to appertain.” Thus, perception comes with biases, as it processes external stimuli within an internal frame of reference.

As defined by Vernon (1955), schemas are: “persistent, deep-rooted, and well-organized classifications of ways of perceiving, thinking, and behaving”. One of their functions is to organize the knowledge stored in memory in a way that is meaningful and relevant. Another one of their functions is to produce expectations. In both cases, schematic processing speeds up cognition, making it more efficient—for instance helping identify ambiguous stimuli, such as a “broken B”; However, schematic processing also exposes cognition to error, as expectations can prove to be false or misguided assumptions.

To test this theory, Bruner and Minturn (1955) presented their subjects with series of capital letters and 2-digit numbers  that included a “broken B” that could be seen as either a “B” or a “13” – you can read the paper in more detail to understand the study better, but to summarise – the researchers concluded, “there is a wide range of phenomena in everyday perception that are precisely of this order: where we see in terms of the properties of objects as they are conceived, and fail to ‘notice’ those features that deviate from this conception.”

So what does it have to do with watches?

Arguably, everything! Before going into my own ramblings, let’s go back to Gestalt Theory, and look at the key principles:

  • Prägnanz: states that you will naturally perceive things in their simplest form or organization.
  • Similarity: suggests that we naturally group similar items together based on elements like color, size, or orientation.
  • Proximity: states that objects near each other tend to be viewed as a group.
  • Continuity: suggests we will perceive elements arranged on a line or curve as related to each other, while elements that are not on the line or curve are seen as separate.
  • Closure: suggests that elements that form a closed object will be perceived as a group. We will even fill in missing information to create closure and make sense of an object.
  • Common region: states that we tend to group objects together if they’re located in the same bounded area. (For example, objects inside a box tend to be considered a group).

This applies to watches and collecting in so many ways, as I am sure you can tell. It applies not only from an individual watch-design perspective, but also in terms of groupings within a brand and more broadly, in one’s own collection of different types of watches with varying complications from different brands. We could discuss any one of these aspects in great detail but that isn/t the aim of this particular discussion. For completeness, thing about ‘chronographs’ with the familiar pushers on the case – you might have one pusher or two, you might have them on one side of the case, or the other – but you always expect to see some sort of chronograph features in the dial when you see these aspects on the case, right? Conversely, if you see sub-dials, and perhaps a tachymeter scale, you inherently expect to see pushers to operate the fuctions. This is pretty obvious but like I said, stating one example for completeness 🙂

The real point of this discussion was to focus more broadly on the idea of perception – and that is a much more nuanced area. The outcome of the above study is extremely interesting to me because it highlights something very important about us – our individuality. The way any one of us perceives a watch (from design, to form and function etc) is a direct outcome of our own life’s journey up to that moment. If you grew up in a family who loved a particular type of art, or happened to have a favourite toy as a child which was a particular colour… only you will know this – but these are the types of things which will form the basis for how you perceive things in the world, and what you find appealing. This is both fascinating, and thought provoking – and the reason I wanted to raise the topic was to remind people to question their own beliefs, or, what they think they like.

Going beyond that philosophical angle, I do wonder how brands approach new designs. We know brands like Rolex play it safe, only making very slight changes to preserve the concepts of similarity and continuity for example – but is that what is best for consumers? The AP Code 11.59 was an example of reimagining everything, and the case construction with the double domed crytal was quite refreshing – granted the dial and font seemed like relative afterthoughts… but shouldn’t we as consumers be happy with these types of innovations? To me, getting more of the same products, in various colours and metals, is rather boring – and we ought to see beyond the popular narrative and encourage brands to take more risks, and deliver more innovation.

To an extent, this is one of the reasons why independent brands are doing so well – they are close enough to their consumers to listen to the feedback, and actually take it into consideration. What is perhaps lacking from larger brands, is a way to listen to the broader voice of their collectors – and I am not talking about the uber-collectors who get unique pieces every other year but rather, the broader collector’s circles… people who do spend a fair bit on watches, but are not necessarily “VIPs” to the brand. There are more of these ‘normal collectors’ than uber-collectors, and more often than not, they have constructive feedback which could be invaluable to the brand. The end result would be the collective ‘perception’ of the target audiences for these brands being captured, allowing the brands to tap in to what their future clients would want in their next watch. How is this not already part of R&D?

Curious to hear your thoughts on this.


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