My Son Is Afraid of the Uncanny Valley

My life needs a filter for malign violations.

Posted Apr 22, 2015

Stewart Butterfield, Creative Commons
Source: Stewart Butterfield, Creative Commons

My son has a very premeditated avoidance response.  He knows what he doesn't like and when he sees something he'd rather not see, he has a fixed action pattern of throwing his hands up, squeezing his eyes shut and turning his head.  It is like an instinct.

We live a fairly cloistered existence—we have no TV and he's young enough that he isn't exposed to the insanity of what kids can share with one another on their phones.  Yet, I've seen him do this a few times now in response to what even considers fairly benign movies for his age: Spy Kids, Secret of the Kells, that kind of thing.

So the question is, what freaks him out?

And the answer is... things that are almost normal.

Almost human.  Almost the same stuffed animal. Almost your happy family.

You get me.

It's an old idea. In the early 1900s Ernst Jentsch explained the idea in a short essay entitled "The Uncanny."1  In a nutshell, Jentsch explains, the person with the feeling of the uncanny is "not quite 'at home.'"  He goes on to describe a man sitting on an old tree trunk, only to find it moving, and suddenly turning into a snake.  The uncanny is that time between trunk and snake. 

Jentsch also referred to the relationship that would eventually be called the uncanny valley. "In storytelling, one of the most reliable artistic devices for producing uncanny effects easily is to leave the reader in uncertainty as to whether he has a human person or rather an automaton..."  Freud took up the term as well, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the 'uncanny valley' was coined to refer to robots that look too human.  Now it is often used to refer to so-good-its-bad computer animation as well. Because it is this place, this almost normal humaness, that freaks the hell right into you. 

The figure to the left shows the basic idea.  Up is good.  Down is bad.  From left to right is machine to human.  But the machine could just as well be a rock. Things like other people are familiar and good.  Things that are not at all like people, like stuffed animals and salad, they're also good.  

But if you meet salad that is almost human...RUN AWAY!

Several studies have found that if you morph human into something that is obviously not-human, people find the place in between to be the most unsettling.2 

My son hates this place.  And obviously he's not alone.  The fact that there is a term for it, 'uncanny valley,' says it all.  People know it when they see it, and they don't like it.

But where does that aversion come from?  Why do (did?) zombies and things with no lips get under our skin?

There are a lot of wacky theories out there.  

My favorite is mortality salience, and particularly that part of it I prefer to call the 'if-you-ran-you-lived' effect. The basic idea is that the uncanny valley fires up the threat engine in your head that says 'get the hell out of here, man.' You can imagine Ug's little son Ack coming home from the lake to find Ug in pieces and not looking so good. The Ack who runs and hides lives. The Ack who is not afraid, well, he represents an obvious target for whatever got Ug. It's a good theory, as theories go. It only has to work once to make a big difference. 

Another, less evolutionary theory boils down to perceptual/cognitive conflict.  When things don't add up, the perceptual/cognitive system finds itself off-kilter and sends your consciousness a mixed message along with a warning that things are not what you thought they were.3

Neither of these theories really sum it up though.  There is a theory of humor called benign violation that is similar to the perceptual/cognitive conflict theory.  If something is wrong, but harmless, then it is funny. In a recent study by McGraw and Warren,4 people found the following both disturbing and funny:

"Before he passed away, Keith’s father told his son to cremate his body. Then he told Keith to do whatever he wished with the remains. Keith decided to snort his dead father’s ashes."

So funny doesn't always have to go with positive emotions.  But clearly somewhere along the way, things cross the line from being benign to malign. And then it's not funny anymore.  It's stressful. Malign violations are uncanny valley territory.

Now I say it partly in jest, but I could use a good website with a malign violation rating for movies.  This would have saved me from watching Shutter Island and the trailer for The Babadook. That one still bothers me. 

Or better, some kind of filter that blocks all uncanny valley images from my computer.  

Isn't it a moral violation that images we would never choose to look at pop up on our computers—AND INTO OUR HEADS—without our permission?  I'm all for free speech (and images).  But really, shouldn't we be able to not look? I'm pretty sure my son would say yes.  

In fact, I bet he'd pay for it.

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2Burleigh, T. J., Schoenherr, J. R., & Lacroix, G. L. (2013). Does the uncanny valley exist? An empirical test of the relationship between eeriness and the human likeness of digitally created faces. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2012.11.021.

3Saygin, A. P., Chaminade, T., Ishiguro, H., Driver, J., & Frith, C. (2011). The thing that should not be: predictive coding and the uncanny valley in perceiving human and humanoid robot actions. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, nsr025.

4McGraw, A. P., & Warren, C. (2010). Benign violations making immoral behavior funny. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1141-1149.