Spelunking in the Uncanny Valley


Thanks to CuriosityStream for supporting this
episode! Go to CuriosityStream.com/Psych to learn more. [♪ INTRO] You’ve probably heard of the uncanny valley
before. It’s the sense of unease you feel when you encounter a slightly-too-lifelike robot or
the feeling of yikes when you stumble across a very creepy
doll. The sense of nope, no thank you, do not want that you might get if you, say, very hypothetically, you kept seeing unsettling CGI cat-humans cavorting around your social media feeds. The uncanny valley is the steep dropoff in how likable we find a character or robot
to be when it gets… slightly too close to appearing
human. These days, it’s everywhere in pop culture, so it might surprise you to know that there’s
still a lot we don’t understand about what causes
it — and whether it even really exists. The idea of the uncanny valley was first proposed in an essay written by a Japanese roboticist named Masahiro Mori in 1970. He hypothesized that a person’s affinity for a robot would increase as the robot became more and more human-like. And then, very abruptly, that affinity would drop off and be replaced by revulsion. He provided examples by plotting human likeness against likability for things like robots and puppets, and came up with
a graph with a sharp dip: that is the uncanny valley. This idea wasn’t totally new. Fifty years earlier, Freud had written about
“the uncanny,” and the terror caused by things that reminded us of the familiar. But the obsession with the uncanny valley in pop culture didn’t really take off until the early 2000s. In particular, it’s been attributed to — go ahead and guess — yes the 2004 Polar Express film starring Tom Hanks. Plenty of early CGI movies flopped in large part because they freaked people
out. And scientists really do cite that freakiness as part of the history of the uncanny valley. Then, in 2005, Mori’s essay was translated into English, and psychologists started to actually study the phenomenon in earnest. Most of the research since then has looked
at whether or not it’s possible to recreate his uncanny valley-shaped plot with real data. And the results have been mixed. An early study of 45 people in 2006 asked participants to rate the likeability
of a series of morphed images, ranging from a mechanical robot through an android to a
human. And they did see an uncanny valley-type effect. But even then, the researchers questioned whether a spectrum of morphed images would always produce an uncanny valley. Basically, was the uncanny valley inevitable? It might not be, because the effect doesn’t always show up. In general, studies that use artificially manipulated images morphing between one thing and another have been more likely to support the valley’s existence than those using images of real robots. But at least one study, published in 2016, where 342 participants looked at 80 real-life robot faces, did find an uncanny valley curve. So… it’s kind of hard to say. Many of us feel something deep down when we see CGI Taylor Swift, but the research simply hasn’t pinned it down yet. Neither is there a clear idea of what might
cause it. There are tons of hypotheses! Some of the less likely ones invoke our perceptions. Like the pathogen avoidance hypothesis, which suggests that disgust towards uncanny
faces might have helped us avoid someone who might be carrying a transmissible disease. Or the mortality salience hypothesis, which suggests that uncanny faces, like clowns,
dolls, wax figures, corpses, and zombies, might literally remind us of death. But none of these really have enough evidence to support them. Other hypotheses invoke what’s going on in our brains, rather than what we perceive. The violation of expectation hypothesis suggests that uncanny faces might lead us
to think they’re going to behave in a way that is human-like and then violate that expectation. The strongest evidence for this comes from research showing that robots and characters
with a mismatch between their appearance and movements, or their appearance and voice, freak us out more than ones that just look creepy. But researchers still believe this one doesn’t answer all the questions. The categorical uncertainty hypothesis also tries to make sense of how our brains are processing uncanny faces. This one argues that there’s uncertainty at any category boundary. So it’s not just humans vs. robots that
freaks us out, it’s anything that our brains can’t put
into a nice neat box. Like a cat person. But there’s a problem: A lot of this research relies on morphed images, but it’s possible that the very process
of morphing images creates visual artifacts our
brains simply Do. Not. Like. That might confound a lot of these findings. And then, there are the theories that look
at what we think it means to be human. The mind perception hypothesis suggests that we find robots uncanny when we think
these non-human things might be capable of the human ability to think, plan, and feel. One 2012 study surveyed 165 participants and found that if they believed that a robot
could sense and experience things, that played a role
in making a human-like robot seem creepier than a mechanical
one. The study also found that a non-humanoid robot could be made creepy — if participants were
told that it was capable of human-like thinking, feeling,
and planning. The dehumanization hypothesis looks at the same idea from a different angle: robots aren’t creepy because they look and act more like humans. Rather, it’s because they look like us, but don’t act enough like us. Our brains are super good at recognizing faces. The idea here is that when we see one and it doesn’t behave the way we expect Actual Human People to act, that triggers uncanny feelings. There are arguments to be made, and at least some evidence, in favor of basically all of these hypotheses. So we don’t have a lot of answers when it comes to the uncanny valley. It’s a phenomenon many of us are pretty darn convinced is real. We feel it in our guts, even if psychologists can’t really tell us why. When Mori wrote his essay in 1970, he was interested in figuring out how roboticists and animators could overcome it — and that’s clearly something we’re still
struggling with. Some researchers, though, argue that we may never overcome it — and, in fact, that it’s worth keeping around. It lets us know that we can tell the difference between robots and humans, and that’s actually a pretty cool thing for our brains to be able
to do. And it might come in handy in the future. Our perceptions definitely filter the way
we see the world — not just androids. The CuriosityStream original What Is Reality is about that idea, looking at how our brains construct the world around us. And that’s just one of the over 2,400 documentaries and non­fiction titles available on CuriosityStream, including exclusive originals, so there’s something there for anyone who
enjoys learning. And you’re here, so you probably do. CuriosityStream is available worldwide, and their titles cover topics ranging from science to lifestyle, and nature to tech. Right now, SciShow viewers can get unlimited access starting at just $2.99 a
month, and the first 31 days are completely free if you sign up at curiositystream.com/Psych and use the promo code “psych” during
the sign-up process. So thanks for checking them out — and for
supporting SciShow. [♪ OUTRO]

100 thoughts on “Spelunking in the Uncanny Valley

  1. They had an experiment where they had a self teaching robot arm figure out how to reach goal, of giving it's self more time. The robot arm had numerous things that would keep the electricity on. It was all random movement, but the arm remember which movement that kept the electricity on longer. The arm got real good at one point, so they had to put Obstacles in the arm's way. What they didn't know was the clean staff was creeped out by arms moving around while they cleaned. The staffed stayed away from it. Eventually, the arm became to good with the obstacles, and they couldn't figure out how the arms were doing it.. They put up cameras to see what the arms were doing. The videos showed the arms waving to get attention of the cleaning crews. The crews felt sorry for the arms, and didn't like people teasing them, so the crews helped the arms past the obstacles.

  2. I love polar express one of my favorite christmas films, also what if it is a combination of multiple of these theories/ideas

  3. Huh… I thought this was going to be a cave diving video about a cave system I haven't been to yet… I am disappoint…

  4. This is highly personal, but I have strong reason to believe that a great deal of the characters in – of all things – Splatoon, are in this Uncanny valley. Most everything else about the game I like, but that uncanny valley effect with the characters is enough to shut me out of the game altogether. Should I see someone about that?

    Just thought this would be a good place to bring it up.

  5. I feel like if the uncanny valley does exist, then there's a spectrum of how much people can tolerate it. For instance, you have creepy lifelike robots that freak people out, but the creators of those robots rarely ever seem fazed by their own creations. And evidently there must be individuals who don't mind realistic baby dolls, because if they did, there wouldn't be nearly as many manufactured.

  6. No wonder there's something freaky with AOC's face. I don't even live in America and when I saw videos of her I was like… "What's wrong with her eyes?".

  7. I can see how uncertainly about what a thing is can lead to creepiness- as I understand creepy is basically the brain not being certain about whether something is a threat. I imagine the first place the uncanny valley was discovered was in art, as artists' depictions became more & more life-like, perhaps fueling or helping to fuel the idea that such depictions could be brought to life.

  8. Spanish-speaking person here. Took half the video to realize what the subject was. No "uncanny valley" on this side, the concept of "uncanny" has no word in Spanish, and it's usually translated as the equivalents of "mysterious" and "odd." It would be interesting to broaden the investigation to peoples with diverse cultural backgrounds and compare reactions in that way.
    The closest thing I have seen was a science congress in which a humanlike robot was presented. Most people found it amazing, a few said it made them nervous. For the ones who know El Chavo del Ocho, "les daba cosa" (it gave them thing).
    "Cosa", the closest to "uncanny" I have ever found.

  9. Could the causes of the "Uncanny Valley" also cause people to hate other people whom the first don't believe are acting sufficiently "human" enough in their view?

  10. I'm sorry Hank, but I think the Uncanny Valley is why I hate those bobbleheads so much. We haven't been able to get rid of the ones we got from the TAtWD tour, so they just face the wall behind our TV.

  11. Did anyone else actually really like the faces in The Polar Express? I never saw them as uncanny at all. A little too soft or exaggerated, sure, but not so much that they looked un-human.

  12. I find, for me, that the uncanny valley is context dependent. "CGI Taylor Swift" is unsettling as I try to see the image as a real human, but if you told me I was going to be playing an old video game and that was the character model, that wouldn't bother me as much.

  13. I think it's about trust. You see something that looks almost human, but isn't. It's like they're trying to trick you, and that sets off alarms.

    On a different note, the uncanny valley might explain racism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination. Seeing someone who looks like you, yet it's different somehow, might trigger an aggressive response, mistrust, and/or the feeling of them being "less than". This is just a hypothesis, though. And definitely not a justification.

  14. The original Terminator cutting his eye out is an example. I had nightmares for YEARS after seeing this movie in my childhood. And that's way before the Mori article.

  15. I actually know 2 people a girl who attended the neighbouring school and a guy I met abroad who fit into the 'uncanny valley'.

    She didn't move like a normal person, she walked in perfect straight lines and ran like a robot I guess. She had jerky movements sometimes like her limbs had hinges, it was just really unsettling. It was kinda sad, as kids nobody trusted her because she fell into this category.

    The guy I met was disturbing to the senses. His face was too symmetrical, his hair looked synthetic, he couldn't genuinely smile. He was only good at conversing with his friend which was bad because if you're going to stare unbashedly you'd better be able to talk. Otherwise you get 8 people wondering if you'll murder them.

  16. Personal theory: The uncanny valley is an evolutionary defense mechanism to spot creatures that are trying to look like us to prey on us. If it looks a lot like us but is just that tiny bit off then something's up with it. Obviously not many things look like modern humans unless we purposely make them look that way, but our ancestor species probably did have things that tried the "wolf in sheep's clothing" tactic.

  17. The hypotheses about it being caused by broken expectations makes sense to me, cause it could explain why I don't experience the uncanny valley effect at all.

    Since I have ADD (inattentive ADHD) (and I suspect I'm also on the autism spectrum); I don't really have strong expectations about how people behave. People do completely unexpected things all the time, either because I was distracted and failed to notice something that would explain their actions, or because they simply act according to feelings and motives that are completely different from mine.
    (In fact I almost never get started when people suddenly appear somewhere unexpected or even try to startle me for fun. When I'm busy with something, people just disappear and reappear around me all the time since I'm not paying attention, so I'm really used to it by now.)

    In fact I more often have a creepy feeling that I completely misunderstand real people in real life, while robots and CGI animated figures is usually way more predictable and simple, and since my face recognition ability is really good I they are pretty obviously fake to me. Unlike a human who might have all sorts of ulterior motives and manipulative behaviour, an obvious robot is pretty reassuringly stupid and transparent. Even the smartest robots is not going to judge me for failing some unwritten rule of social interaction.

  18. i think it has more to do with the fact that if our brain cant read and predict the behaviour of something, it has been a good bet that getting away from it at top speed has been a good evolutionary choice.
    The dude with a hoodie : cant see his face? Bolt.
    The painted visage of a clown : why is the smile exaggerated? Is it disingenious? Book it.
    The blank face of a doll : is it smiling or is it aggressive? Get away from there.
    A robot that is almost human but not quite : should i use the human parameters to tell if its aggressive or the robot ones ( expression vs data on a monitor)? Haul ass.
    Monkey brain for the monkeys we still are.

  19. Question: Why can't it just be a totality of all the hypotheses? Like the human brain is so severely complex it's not that hard to believe that the fact that something doesn't meet expected behavioral outcomes, the overall average societal upbringing to fear death and disease and so on and so forth all compounded together is the reason for the uncanny valley to exist, right?

  20. The weird thing about the cats trailer is although none of them really look appealing to me, all of them seemed to be tolerable to me except that one character who was singing the song 'Memory'. Her face just looked so off it made me cringe. But the others looked okay. Ugly, but tolerable.

  21. The only thing from the uncanny valley I can think of that really, really got to me was Alita: Battle Angel. I absolutely despise what the protagonist looks like. I literally get nauseous when I look at her. And I mean LITERALLY. I have never experienced such a strong reaction to anything like that in my entire life.

  22. I actually started looking into a hypothesis I had about the uncanny valley today, before I knew this video was posted.

  23. that blue robot doll with the glowing eyes – behind some of those texts – was – 😱 I have no idea what the texts said or even what you were saying at the time 😳

  24. Perhaps our ability to detect intruders within our own species is manifesting through this. Same way you can be bothered by spider or snakes. This has been ringing in my head for a few days and this pops up. Could mean nothing but it is an interesting idea.

  25. I've never experienced this and I'm not sure why. I could be shown something that is universally regarded as uncanny, but it doesn't make me feel anything close to unease. The closest I got was an animation of someone side marching (like in a marching band) but moving forward and not sideways. There was a brief "urgh what's that" moment, but a few seconds later I found it funny.

  26. Everyone has had some version of the dream where you realize that you are surrounded by people who are not real or aren't who they appear to be. This can be the distorted face dream, the everyone is wearing masks dream. (Or its creeper cousin, where they stole your real friends faces) etc.
    Our dreams teach us to be wary of the Imposter. The uncanny valley could be called the imposter's valley.

  27. What about the hypothesis that the feelings are an artifact of the primative brain when it meets and can't categorize it the object as safe or dangerous. Mark Bowden talks about it a little. Or at least I think it was him that did.

  28. Here' the uncanny valley. To a point, a non human creature doing human things is cute, but a human doing stuff that's not human is creepy.

  29. I realised something recently in this and it seems a tad random: machines and cgi dont have pores. It means all the features look right but the slight imperfections are missing. The skin on robots is too smooth, and so looks fake even if the features are otherwise good.

  30. I find this subject fascinating because I don't ever encounter it myself. Without going into details I have more trouble then "normal" people with face recognition. For whatever reason this seems to result in not being fazed by this effect but more fascinated and curious when I encounter the same situation.

  31. At 4:33, you'd hope it was on or the other once it was observed.
    I brace myself every time Sigmund Freud is mentioned on this channel.

  32. ditinguishing humans and robots will be easy in the not so distant future:
    – do you have a job? yeah? then you are a robot.

    besides, make an April fools' day joke with this next year! after all the scandals about dihydrogen monoxide, we need an address in the Uncanny Valley

  33. All of the stated hypotheses could be true depending on the person and many kinds of analyses would cover up that reality, which is truly the most uncanny thing about average-thinking and normalisation and the reification of "human nature".

    All things considered this research is an excellent example of brain/behavioural/economic/neuroscience all being arts that are moved passion rather than reason. The "uncanny valley" was an odd and mostly silly observation, but it is such an established part of conventional wisdoms through mass media- and pop-culture that it has gained the status of phenomenon…this is not educated guess territory, this is creating value and meaning, i.e. art.

  34. I've noticed a lot of online comments that misunderstand the uncanny valley. Many comments seem to think it only applies to representations that are nearly realistic but off in some vague way. That applies, but it's a pretty narrow definition.

  35. I think I know why we have an uneasy feeling when we come across beings that resemble us (humans) but aren't quite. Could this feeling be a defensive evolutionary mechanism our ancestors had to deal with other early hominids?

  36. My bet would be it's a combination of at least 3 or 4 different things happening in the brain (ie believing it can sense as a human, it not acting like we would expect, etc.). I do wonder if it's linked to facial recognition "software" in the brain though. Like, when I think about friends from elementary school that I haven't seen since, I imagine them looking my age, not 5-10, so clearly my brain remembers their face as a sort of 'schematic' that can age, rather than as a set image. Maybe uncanny valley stuff is just off enough that it's outside the bounds of what we can easily interpret, but well within the range of what we see as a face due to pareidolia?

  37. Believe it or not a lot of the new Lion King movie sits in the uncanny valley for me. There is just something off about the way the animals move and emote.

  38. I have this problem rendering neanderthals. Some people are good at not making them as creepy but I can't keep them out of nope valley. Judging by the skulls, those guys must have had mouths so wide compared to the wideness of their head I'd be surprised if they couldn't just open their darn face like pacman.

  39. I feel this uncanny valley, but most of the pictures in this video weren't that bad. They looked rather silly in a way.

  40. I’m on the autism spectrum, so I don’t have a sense of what is “normal” for being human. Even so, the uncanny valley stuff affects me. A lot of it has to do with how Fake something looks while trying to present itself as Real.

  41. I had a remote-controlled puppy when I was a child…as toys went, it was pretty life-like. It had fur, brown plastic eyes, could walk, bark, and do backflips.

    The cats were TERRIFIED of it. Oh, I had so much fun! 🤣

  42. Should voice-distortion be included in the 'Uncanny-Valley'… I think it most definitely should. Two examples… the Rabbit that visits Donnie Darko, and also, the voice of the Demon that telephones Richard Gere in 'The Mothman Prophecies'…. geez, I've given myself goose-bumps just thinking anout them!

  43. Okay, so the three images starting from 3:55 and ending with that cat thing, are some of the scariest things I've seen in my life, and I used to collect dolls…

  44. I wonder if a similar function of the brain contributes to racist tendencies. The physical and behavioral differences among people could possibly fall into that same category and cause the same type of discomfort.

  45. Is it weird that nothing in this video creeped me out? And I cant believe people were freaked out by polar express I love that movie

  46. Also… the uncanny valley is the reason why horror movies play cute musicbox type music and why that dichotomy makes us uneasy.

  47. I can tell you EXACTLY why I get that feeling. It's because they look like, just maybe, there's a real person behind that mask that's desperately trying to express themselves, but can't. Or like they're trying to fight against something controlling their face. Just that unconscious suspicion that there might be a tortured face underneath the happy facade is enough to give me the creeps.

  48. I LIVE in the Uncanny Valley… I have the wonderful (sarcasm) and rare brain condition called Prosopometamorphopsia. In short. Everyone looks 'Nope' to me- due to a malfunction in the Fuciform Facial area of my brain.. triggers a sort of fight/flight response. Always feel alone and alienated.. Hard on interpersonal relationships as well. Depression and anxiety are the flavor of every day of my life..

  49. ..i would think that the 'looks but doesn't act enough like' theory would be #1, think about all the syfi shows you've watched where the non-human was actually played by a human and how acceptable it was to yourself…^^(tho most , if not all, have some merit)

  50. What does the theory that it is how human-like things don't act human say about autism and other disorders similar to that? Are those uncanny?

  51. Here's a possible explanation: it makes evolutionary sense to try to kill anything that pretends to be something you instinctively trust, because such things are often malicious. Something inhuman that's pretending to be a baby is trying to game your desire to protect babies, and therefore probably doesn't have your best interest at heart, and you should eradicate it before it evolves into a good enough fake that you think it's real. But you can't afford to kill everything that looks even vaguely human or otherwise trustworthy, so the "nope" response only activates on pretty good fakes.

  52. One time I think I experienced an "uncanny valley" effect (could just be a regular reaction to the "cosmic horror"-ness of the thing, although it would be interesting to see how cosmic horror might be related to uncanny valley; since cosmic horror sometimes takes what is familiar and turns it on it's head, sometimes subtly) that wasn't based on a visual was Red from Overly Sarcastic Productions quote "It would be inaccurate to describe Howard Phillips Lovecraft as a man with issues. It's more like he was a bundle of issues shambling around in a roughly bipedal approximation of a man." from her episode on HP Lovecraft.

  53. There´s more to it: it´s not just about being creepy, but also about jokes and being well received. A few examples:
    If you speak in a totally monotonous voice like an autistic person, you probably lose expectation fast. When you change your pitch, pace and volume according to the emotions in the story, you might make it more engaging or funny, but if you overdo it, or fail to match expectations, then you become creepy (sound unhinged).

    This translates to songs too: you don´t want every song to sound the same, but when it´s very different to what you´re used to, it may be not well-liked (Asian music for Westerners for instance, though J-pop may be an exception to many of us, who grew up with anime). If you notice the pattern, but the rhythm or pitch is just slightly off, you get creepy music. It´s almost like when your sense of orientation and visuals don´t match up and you get dizzy…
    The same can be translated to attire, architecture etc.
    However, I can´t really tell why some things appear funny and others creepy, when their parameters are quite similar. It´s like a bit crazy can swing both ways…

  54. Could you do the science of crazy?

    People need to get told over and over again: don´t stick your D in crazy!
    Why then, do so many fall for crazy, or bad?

  55. I hate all of the moving, uncanny images. Please tell your editor to go stick their head in a cactus planter – they did a WAY too good job!
    (Stupid talented editor)

  56. I don't know, It's really hard to pin the Uncanny Valley down to something concrete. For instance, some fully CGI human characters are super creepy and unpleasant, others though, I never even noticed they were CGI until I was told. So why are some so creepy and others are not? Same thing with androids and robots. Some android/robots are extremely creepy, others are not. Take the robots in I, Robot for example. Although they were of course CGI, they creeped me out big time. All except Sonny. And he was the most human of them all. So it can't just be something that looks human but doesn't act like one. They all had identical faces, but even before the main program VIKKI took control of them, I felt a distinct difference between Sonny and the others. Why? And of course there are the movie androids played by actual people. And I guess a lot of that must come directly from the actor. Arnold Schwarzenegger terrified me as the original Terminator, but he NEVER approached the flat out creepy robot factor that Robert Patrick brought to the T-1000. Even though he's a real human, he gave off a real Uncanny Valley vibe in his movie. I don't know. When I first watched The Polar Express with my kids, I found it delightful. But now watching clips of it? It gives me the creeps. Same with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. At the time of it's release, it was amazing to watch FOR it's "realness". But now it just looks so creepy and strange. Which begs the question, how does our perception of the uncanny valley change as we age or as the technology changes?

  57. An interesting wrinkle to the valley is provided by such virtual reality games as Second Life or Final Fantasy, where the very best avatars you can create still fail to escape the uncanny valley, technically speaking — but you quickly get used to it, and you don't mind, because you know there's an actual person behind the avatar. They're still in the valley yet somehow above it. Curious, eh?

  58. My biggest uncanny valley triggers are clowns like Pennywise, and the silvery Terminator from Terminator 2. Both of which I watch when I was waaaay too freaking young! I'll now be jumpy for the rest of today, and I just KNOW my sub-conscious is gonna have a field day when I try to sleep tonight… great interesting info though.

  59. TV Tropes has a good article on the uncanny valley effect:
    https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/UncannyValley

  60. That image of "NOT TAYLOR SWIFT" really is NOT Taylor Swift. Nor was it ever intended to be. That is Victoria 4. The semi androgynous base 3D model offered by Daz3D.
    (Just thought you should know)

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