Which of the two vertical line segments is longer? Although your visual system tells you that the left one is longer, a ruler would confirm that they are equal in length. The Muller-Lyer illusion is one of the most famous of illusions. It was created by German psychiatrist Franz Muller-Lyer in 1889.
One role of an experimental psychologist is to find explanations for psychological phenomena like the Muller-Lyer illusion, and then to perform experiments to show whether or not the explanations are valid. Let us look at some possible explanations for the Muller-Lyer illusion and some ways to experimentally test their validity.
The retina is saying that the two shafts are the same length but the brain is interpreting the Muller-Lyer as a depth issue, with the shaft that looks like an outside corner being closer and the shaft that looks like an inside corner being farther away. In other words, the retina is saying "two shafts equal" and the brain is saying "outside shaft shorter than inside shaft". The brain usually wins differences like this. Thus, the brain seesas longer than.
Psychologists have attempted to support this theory that the Muller-Lyer illusion is caused by our experiences with outside and inside corners, by showing the illusion to an African tribe that lived in circular huts and therefore had no perceptual experiences with corners. People in this tribe didn't seem to be fooled by the illusion thus supporting the "experience with corners" explanation of the illusion.
A counter-study concerned a man who was completely blind (except for light sensitivity) from the of age 3. Recently this man received a successful corneal transplant. Studies have shown that he is impressively free from geometrical illusions that are associated with a suggestion of depth (such as the Shepard Tables illusion shown below -- the two table tops are the same size).
However, he shows roughly normal susceptibility to the Muller-Lyer illusion. This finding suggests that the Muller-Lyer illusion does not depend on processes associated with depth perception.
It should be noted that neither the "African tribe" study nor the "blind man" study are EXPERIMENTAL studies. To be experimental, you must have random assignment. It is not possible to randomly assign people to be "African tribe" or "blind".
Is an experimental test of the "depth" theory possible? For example, would doing the Muller-Lyer illusion by substituting circles or squares for the slanting fins be a proper experimental test of the illusion?
Some psychologists would argue "yes". Participants could be randomly assigned to either a Muller-Lyer with fins or a Muller-Lyer with circles. Then, the results could be compared to see if there was a difference in the performance of the two groups.
Some psychologists would argue "no". They would say that, even though the Muller-Lyer with the circles looks like the Muller-Lyer with the fins, they are not the same. For examples, circles are process by "curve" detectors while fins are processed by "angle" or "corner" detectors.
Innate feature detectors have been found in the visual system
Researchers (Hubel and Wiesel) in work on vision in frogs and cats
have found innate feature detectors in the visual system. Detailed study
revealed three basic kinds of feature-detecting cells. Simple cells respond
to a particular stimulus appearing in a circumscribed area of the field
(for example, a point of light in the upper-left quadrant). Thus, simple
cells report location as well as feature. Complex cells respond to a
particular stimulus (e.g., a point of light) appearing anywhere in the
field; thus, they report only the presence of a feature, not its location.
Hypercomplex cells respond to combinations of simple features, such as
form corners, curves, and angles.
Experimental psychologists have to be careful that they are testing theory, and not just testing differences. On the other hand, would the "depth" theorists be logical in arguing that even though their theory is based on "learning", the most critical component of the theory is "unlearned" (biological feature detectors). It is required that experimental psychologists make logically consistent arguments in support of their point of view.
As an alternative, is it possible to experimentally test the depth theory by using only the fins and no shafts? Is the shaft an essential part of the learning experience? Is it an essential part of the experience of depth?
If you did this study, and you found that the illusion was the same for the group that did the illusion with the shaft present and for the group that did the illusion with the shaft absent, would this result invalidate the "depth" theory, or would it only show that shafts are not necessary for depth processing?
What ways can you think of to test the "depth" theory?
One experimental way to test this theory is to see if flashing the illusion faster than our eyes can move will still produce the illusion.
The result is that for the outward fins, the shaft looks longer and for the inward fins, the shaft looks shorter.
Since this theory appears to depend on the size and length of the fins (e.g. longer fins would move the illusion farther from the center of the fins)
and not on the distance separating the two fin heads, it is possible to experimentally test the theory by comparing short separation comparisons of of inward and outward fin heads with long separation comparisons (while keeping the head sizes the same).
The there are two kinds of Averaging theory. The first concerns the fins, only, and claims that the fin pair affects the perceptual system's ability to measure the shaft (or space) distance. Specifically, it says that the Muller-Lyer judgment is based on the average of distances enclosed by the fin pair. The average distance enclosed by the inward fins is less than the average distance enclosed by the outward fins. Therefore, the inward fin space looks shorter than the outward fin space.
The second averaging theory claims that the ratio of fin length to shaft length determines the strength of illusion effect. Fin length would be subtracted from shaft length in the inward fin part of the illusion and added to the shaft length in the outward fin part of the illusion, thus creating the illusion.
One way to test this theory would be to have two inward half-fins on the same side (both right or both left) of the shaft, compared with two inward half-fins on opposite sides of the shaft (one left and one right). The ratio of fin length to shaft length would be the same in both cases. If these different configurations produced different magnitudes (amounts) of illusions when compared to some standard, then the averaging theory would not be supported.