The El Greco Fallacy.
Looking a El Greco’s paintings, you may notice something odd; they all seem strangely distorted. The figures he painted, in particular (Saint John the Baptist, The Repentant Magdalen, and his own self-portrait) seem elongated, like they had been stretched.
An expert on El Greco, in the 1900’s, came up with an explanation for this, that seemed to completely account for why this was. Could El Greco have suffered from a severe astigmatism that stretched his vision vertically? This distortion could be the cause for the painters oddly outstretched artwork.
However, the more historians questioned it, the more they realised that this couldn’t have been the case (although this theory was held for almost a century). If El Greco viewed the world as distorted, the canvas he painted on would also be distorted to him. This means that although he viewed the world, and his paintings, as elongated, those without this distortion would view his paintings as perfectly normal. It is clear that there is another reason behind his painting methods. However, the belief that this theory was true for such a long time has born a new idea; the El Greco fallacy. This is defined as a “peculiar kind of illogical thinking, which is highly intuitive but obviously wrong once it’s illuminated” (Wray Herbert, psychologicalscience.org). This has been applied to all kinds of theories and perceptions that are still alive today, and it has now been researched more thoroughly.
Chaz Firestone and Brian Scholl of Yale University tested this using two psychological phenomena; both examples of “top down” influences on perception (e.g. beliefs and desires that can alter the way we view the world). With their doubts this line of experimentation, they used methods intended to expose any El Greco-type fallacious thinking.
Firstly, they asked participants to hold a rod across the front of their bodies as they approached a doorway. These volunteers were asked to show how wide they perceived this doorway to be using a tape measure (the researcher would hold the tape measure and the participant would tell him/her to stop when they reached the correct width). They also used a control group for comparison. It was hypothesized that those holding the rod in their hands would judge the doorway as more narrow than it actually was – this high level cognition affects our judgement of the width of the doorway. Their results were just this, that holding the rod did influence the judgements of how wide the doorway was, often causing it to be viewed as more narrow than it was.
Next, they made a change to this study – beginning with a replication of the first part, but then went on to a second part. Once participants had faced the doorway holding the pole, they turned to face another doorway. This time the doorway was adjustable, and a researcher set it so it was narrower than the original doorway.
This difference was very crucial to the investigation. It was believed that if holding a rod appears to shrink the doorway, the second version of the experiment should fail. They should view both of the doorways as more narrow, in the same way that El Greco would have seen both the world and his paintings as distorted.
And this is what was found – participants failed to see the second, compressed doorway as smaller. The effects should have cancelled each other out, like with El Greco, but they didn’t.
So Firestone and Scholl set out to test the strength of this El Greco strategy using a second study. This time, they focused more on a recent finding that “thinking about unethical behaviour actually dims the light that it is perceived”. In other words, the more “dark thoughts” we have, the darker we will view the world.
In this second study, participants were asked to recall an act from their past, either ethical or unethical. This included the emotions they felt at the time they committed the act. They were then asked to rate the brightness of the room they were in based on seven different grey patches (from light to dark). They were asked to choose the grey patch they felt most accurately matched the room. The purpose of this was to discover whether the deeds they described would effect their perception of room brightness. If it was the case that remembering/thinking about unethical acts made the room darker, then this version of the El Greco fallacy would fail – as, even though the room may look darker, the grey patches should appear darker as well.
The same distortion was found in this experiment, which has caused the researchers to conclude that the effect is not perceptual. “If the walls looked darker, the patches should also have looked darker – but they did not”. So, there must another explanation for this distortion. As of yet, the cause of the distortions are a mystery – just like El Greco’s strange vision.
Written by: Philippa Berry
Published on: 13th March 2013
Wray Herbert’s blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in The Huffington Post.