Saturday, March 9, 2013

Seeing things: Anthropomorphism and Animation

From the The Thoughtful Animal blog at Scientific American:
Under certain conditions, even 2D shapes can be interpreted as animate social agents rather than simple intentionless objects. In other words, you have imbued the red and green circles with desires and intentions. You have granted them minds.

This phenomenon was perhaps most famously investigated in 1944 by Smith College experimental psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. In their first experiment, the psychologists simply instructed their female undergraduate subjects to “write down what happened” in the movie above. (The rest of this post will only make sense if you watch the video above!)

Most of the thirty four subjects interpreted the shapes in the movie as animate characters. Thirty two described them as people, and two described the shapes as birds.
In another experiment:
Having verified that humans spontaneously thought of the shapes in their video as animate, Heider and Simmel showed the film to another thirty six undergraduate students. They were explicitly asked to describe the personalities and desires of each of the shapes.

Thirty five of them thought of the big triangle as mean, and used adjectives like aggressive, warlike, belligerent, quarrelsome, angry, bad-tempered, dominant, and irritable. They described it as a bully or as a villain, and they thought it enjoyed “picking on smaller people.” Tellingly, it was universally described using male pronouns.


  1. To me, what’s interesting here is that the psychologists “animated” those three color-areas we call “geometric forms” by breathing story into them. The story was first present in the minds of the animators, and once they had “created” their animation, the students in most cases were able to “read their minds” fairly accurately while perceiving it.

    This account disposes of any simplistic notion of “anthropomorphizing” by preceding it with the “de-anthropomorphizing” practiced by the psychologists in assembling their animation “materials” according to their “mental” narrative. And (as with cargo cults, Georg Cartor’s alephs, Shakespeare’s “Globe Theatre” and various other intriguing “this world” points of reference) one can then read into the whole event a few things the psychologists themselves didn’t already have in mind – such as whether we’re an “animation” ourselves, and if so whether it’s a stop frame animation.. whose mind (or no-mind) devised it.. and more besides.

    Windows open, breath of fresh air, lots of open questions...

  2. I am just trying to identify what my own biases and beliefs are before getting absorbed in reading the subject in more detail in these forms of empirical observation and experiment.

    I love playing with abstract patterns and images because it is pleasurable and rewarding one of the most pleasing things I can think of doing.

    It seems to have some relationship with memory, how I hold data and keep things in mind.

  3. p.s I think Charles makes a point with regard to context or I think that is what he is pointing at.

    I spent the last few days looking at the abstract patterns that lurk at the edge of the way I produce internal images. So not so much that they are being something, my thought is of what they may be holding within and in moving and interacting with other abstractions what is held within the further patterns created.

    What i saw as I watched.

    Potential to become rather than being something in particular.

  4. Yes sorry to bore. But the narrative I have formed from spending a week looking at the way I have collected patterns for the last couple of years is pattern first meaning or sense retrospective activity.

    I think even if I was told to give it a sense of meaning I would resist as my own story and observations are so strongly in mind at the moment

  5. What those little abstract animations suggest to me is that we're disposed to see agency in certain patterns of motion between objects regardless of the identity of those objects. It's motion and relative motion that's triggering the sense of agency, which seems to be perceived directly rather than inferred.