The material-weight illusion disappears or inverts in objects made of two materials Academic Article uri icon


  • The material-weight illusion (MWI) occurs when an object that looks heavy (e.g., stone) and one that looks light (e.g., Styrofoam) have the same mass. When such stimuli are lifted, the heavier-looking object feels lighter than the lighter-looking object, presumably because well-learned priors about the density of different materials are violated. We examined whether a similar illusion occurs when a certain weight distribution is expected (such as the metal end of a hammer being heavier), but weight is uniformly distributed. In experiment 1, participants lifted bipartite objects that appeared to be made of two materials (combinations of stone, Styrofoam, and wood) but were manipulated to have a uniform weight distribution. Most participants experienced an inverted MWI (i.e., the heavier-looking side felt heavier), suggesting an integration of incoming sensory information with density priors. However, a replication of the classic MWI was found when the objects appeared to be uniformly made of just one of the materials ( experiment 2). Both illusions seemed to be independent of the forces used when the objects were lifted. When lifting bipartite objects but asked to judge the weight of the whole object, participants experienced no illusion ( experiment 3). In experiment 4, we investigated weight perception in objects with a nonuniform weight distribution and again found evidence for an integration of prior and sensory information. Taken together, our seemingly contradictory results challenge most theories about the MWI. However, Bayesian integration of competing density priors with the likelihood of incoming sensory information may explain the opposing illusions. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We report a novel weight illusion that contradicts all current explanations of the material-weight illusion: When lifting an object composed of two materials, the heavier-looking side feels heavier, even when the true weight distribution is uniform. The opposite (classic) illusion is found when the same materials are lifted in two separate objects. Identifying the common mechanism underlying both illusions will have implications for perception more generally. A potential candidate is Bayesian inference with competing priors.

publication date

  • 2019