The Uncanny Valley

Barbara Trotta on Flickr

There might be a reason that too-real robot and video game character creeps you out.

When you play a video game that is extremely realistic, every detail in place, or see picture of a really lifelike robot, what’s you reaction? Most likely your response is caution or rejection. Or you feel uneasy, creeped out.

Turns out humans have a primitive response to images and experiences that are too human but not human. We can lose ourselves in cartoons, video games with characters who clearly are not human, and movies with lots of special effects. But seeing someone near human makes us stop. We love Wall-E the robot but fear the Terminator (or at least Arnold Schwarzenegger).

This effect is called the Uncanny Valley. It could be as simple as confusion about what is real and what is fake. Or it could be a primitive fight or flight response our ancestors developed tens of thousands of years ago, a way to survive dangerous situations.

While video games have made the Uncanny Valley popular in the past few decades, how people respond to uncanny situations, and what makes an uncanny situation, has been debated for centuries.

One idea is that the more people know what is around them, the less likely something extremely lifelike will make them pause. It’s the surprise that causes hesitation and rejection. The word uncanny means something beyond our familiar knowledge or perceptions.


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