Have you ever looked at a mannequin, a robot or a computer-generated human and felt a wave of revulsion? If so, welcome to the so-called “uncanny valley.”
The “uncanny valley” is a theory proposed by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in a 1970 paper. His theory is that subtle flaws in human-like appearance result in discomfort and even disgust. The term “uncanny” means something that seems familiar yet foreign at the same time. The “valley” is a reference to the below chart that suggests that as robots/humanoids become more lifelike they hit a valley where they cause discomfort and revulsion. At some point they become so lifelike that they are familiar and no longer distasteful. The chart:
The uncanny valley has been confirmed in numerous experiments. Here are some examples – do these images seem creepy to you?
There a number of potential explanations for why we experience revulsion at near, but not quite, human forms including:
- Mate selection – we pick up subconscious cues about the fertility of potential human mates and not-quite human images don’t pass muster.
- Pathogen avoidance – like with mate selection, we subconsciously pick up cues about health of individuals in order to avoid disease. When a human form is “not right” we can sense it.
- Mortality Salience – seeing near human forms elicit fear of mortality and of being replaced.