December 3, 2021 Leave your thoughts

The Irresistible Perception of Animacy

Mustafa Yavuz

On a sunny day, you are waiting at the train station and listening to your favourite artist. Then you reach into your pocket to buy a cold drink from the vending machine on the platform. In a wink, the quarter slips between your fingers, drops to the ground and starts to roll down the platform. As it gets further away from you while you are desperately trying to catch it, you might start to think: “It is almost as if this quarter is running away from me!”. While it is obvious that the quarter is not capable of  this type of “goal-directed” behaviours, we may still “perceive” as if it does. Our tendency to recognise inanimate moving objects as animate is called “perceived animacy”.

In a wonderful study, Gao and colleagues showed that our brain is very keen to attribute animacy to abstract objects. Moreover, this perception of animany is very hard to ignore.

Pink Panther and the Quarter

This phenomenon is interesting to cognitive scientists because it shows that how our perceptual system deceive us into highly complex beliefs. However, Gao and colleagues from Yale University (Link to the paper) went beyond the mere existence of this phenomenon. They asked whether perception of animacy would interfere with performance in simple visual tasks, even when it is irrelevant to our behavioral goals?

In series of experiments, researchers showed how easy it is to create perception of animacy by using completely abstract shapes like darts, discs, and rectangles. Using a very simple principle (see Figure 1 and 2), they produced highly dramatic and compelling scenarios, such as a wolf chasing a sheep.

Figure 1. Left: Wolfpack condition: the darts were always heading towards the square (regardless of their motion direction indicated here by the arrow). Right: Perpendicular (control) condition: the orientations of the darts were always orthogonal to their motion direction and did not have anything to do with the square.

Video from Wolfpack Condition

Each dart moves randomly on the display, but they are always oriented towards the disc (which is being moved about by a human controller). Source: Yale Perception and Cognition Lab

Video from Control Condition

The trajectories of the darts and the disc are identical, but now the darts are consistently oriented orthogonal to the disc. This greatly weakens or destroys the effect. Source: Yale Perception and Cognition Lab

What is fascinating about the wolfepack and control videos is that the white darts in both conditions followed the exact same trajectories (Figure 2) but in one case we have drama and story while in the other case we just have dots moving on the screen. The only difference between them was the orientation of the darts relative to the green circle. This seemingly little difference resulted in the perception that the green circle was chased by a “wolf pack”.

Figure 2. When the white darts are replaced with red circles (right panels), we see that the locations of the darts are identical. You can also pause the two videos at the same frame to see it for yourself!

What is also interesting in this Wolfpack Demo is that the feeling of drama and liveliness was able to distract the participants from performing a simple task. For instance, when people were asked to navigate the green circle to avoid hitting any of the darts, people made more mistakes in the Wolfpack condition. This is interesting if we remember that (as we see in figure 2) the trajectories of the darts are identical in the two conditions. The sense of drama and story gets in the way of navigation.

The authors argued that perception of animacy is not something that we merely experience, but it also influences our behavior irresistibly. Hence, perception of animacy is not just an “end-product” of the visual perception, rather, it can influence perception and action.

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