Perception of an Ambiguous Stimulus

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Do you see what I see?
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Perception is the rapid, unconscious, automatic process by which individuals recognize and interpret what is represented by the information provided through the sensory organs. The brain continually receives fragmented bits of information from a multitude of sensory neurons and seemingly effortlessly combines and organizes these fragments into cohesive recognizable wholes that represent the familiar world (Gleitman 2003; Ormrod, 2004; Santrock, 2003). This complex process of perception gives unity and coherence to human experience. As such, we consistently rely on the mechanisms of perception to make sense of the environment around us.

Typically individuals identify sensory stimuli without a great deal of selective attention or effortful processing. Occasionally, however, stimuli encountered are ambiguous and require more concentrated effort to interpret. By definition, ambiguous stimuli are not easily interpreted and often lend themselves to more than one interpretation. As such, they serve as indicators of the processing mechanisms involved in perception (Ormrod, 2004; Santrock, 2003).

Additionally, sometimes our senses can be fooled. When our senses deceive us into experiencing a stimulus pattern in a manner that is demonstrably incorrect, we experience an illusion. To study illusions at the level of perception, psychologists rely on ambiguous figures—stimulus patterns that can be seen in two or more distinct ways. Ambiguity is an important concept in understanding perception because it shows that a single image at the level of sensation can result in multiple interpretations at the perceptual level. Transforming uncertainty about the environment into a clear interpretation is a fundamental property of everyday human perception.

It is commonly held throughout various perspectives in psychology that an individual’s interpretation of ambiguous stimuli may render important information about personality, motivation, emotional state or unconscious conflicts (Matlin, 2002). Controversy exists among the various theoretical orientations regarding the exact nature of what is revealed in such interpretations. However, research does indicate that perceptual sets and mental predispositions influence these interpretations. Ambiguous figures illustrate the role of expectations, experience base, and selective attention (Long & Toppino, 2004).

With regard to the figure below, for example, children tested on Easter Sunday are more likely to see the figure as a rabbit while those tested on a Sunday in October, tend to see it as a duck or similar bird (Brugger & Brugger, 1993).
1892 German cartoon

Likewise, this figure below is equally likely to be interpreted as a young woman or as an old woman. However, if subjects are initially shown unambiguous figures of young women or alternatively old women, they are subsequently more likely to match the interpretation of the ambiguous figure to that previously viewed (Boring, 1930; Leeper, 1935). Such exposure primes an individual’s perceptual processing system, setting up expectations which influence subsequent interpretations.
William Ely Hill in 1915

At virtually all levels of cognitive processing an individual’s expectations influence both selective attention and the subsequent interpretation of sensory information. One’s mental set refers to a fixed pattern of thinking that fails to take into consideration new information or perspectives. A closely related concept, functional fixedness, refers to a failure to perceive different uses for objects or new configurations of elements in a situation (Ormrod, 2004; Santrock, 2003). Therefore, when interpreting ambiguous figures - either those purposely created as a perceptual puzzle, such as those depicted here, or more realistic circumstances in everyday life, such as interpreting what someone said in the context of a noisy background or what the dark figure is in the road as dusk approaches – an individual typically refers to a previously learned pattern and once the stimulus is interpreted ceases to analyze it for meaning, often missing alternative explanations.

For example, if subjects are not made aware of the existence of alternative interpretation of the above figures, they typically do not continue to analyze the picture once a conclusion has been drawn about the subject. Furthermore, once a figure is interpreted, it often takes subjects significantly more concentrated attention to shift perspective and perceive the alternate view than it did to initially interpret the stimulus. Such findings have significant implications for areas in applied psychology, including problem solving, perception, creativity, and critical thinking.
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash


Boring, E. G. (1930). A new ambiguous figure. American Journal of Psychology, 42, 444-445.

Brugger, P., & Brugger, S. (1993). The Easter Bunny in October: Is it disguised as a duck? Perceptual & Motor Skills, 76, 577-578.

Gletiman, H. (2003). Psychology, 6e. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Leeper, R. W. (1935). A study of a neglected portion of the field of learning: The development of sensory organization. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 46, 41-75.

Long, G.M., & Toppino, T.C.  (2004).  Enduring interest in perceptual ambiguity: Alternating views of reversible figures. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 748-768.

  1. Matlin, M. W. (2002). Cognition, 5e. New York, NY: Harcourt College Publishers.

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning, 4e. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Santrock, J. W. (2003). Psychology, 7e. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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