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Monkeys and "the uncanny valley"

Posted by Christopher Shea  October 21, 2009 03:51 PM

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Macaque monkeys do not like this picture

Researchers at Princeton University have demonstrated that macaque monkeys, like humans, more or less freak out when they see likenesses of themselves that are close to, but fall fatefully short of, the utterly realistic.

Psychologists have long used the phrase "the uncanny valley" to refer to the way people react to simulated images of human beings. We respond more and more positively as such simulations move from the obviously cartoonish or robotic to the moderately human-esque. But when the faux-humans reach the point of being very-close-but-somehow-off (think of the Tom Hanks character in "The Polar Express"), a severely adverse reaction ensues. (The positive response then resumes as the simulation becomes hyper-realistic.)

When Asif Ghazanfar, an assistant professor of psychology and member of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, and Shawn Steckenfinger, a research specialist in Princeton's psychology department, showed that monkeys experienced analogous heebie-jeebies in the presence of uncanny monkey images, it was the first demonstration of the uncanny-valley effect in a species besides humans.

Their paper, which appeared in the Oct. 12 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, strengthens the argument that the uncanny valley has evolutionary roots: it is a side effect, perhaps, of whatever sensory-processing system helps to identify enemies posing as friends.

(Thanks to Kitta MacPherson for the Tom Hanks example.)

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