Emotional Connection to Human Lookalikes: What Is the Uncanny Valley and What Can It Tell Us About How We Connect To Each Other?
Pixar, the company behind some of the most successful animated films of all time, released its first film, Toy Story, all the way back in 1995. Toy Story was the first film in the history of cinema to be created entirely using computer-generated graphics. In the time since then, technology has inarguably advanced in leaps and bounds, our ability to develop digitally-animated feature films, Saturday morning cartoons, and even short films has grown exponentially—giving rise to some truly unique stories.
But have you ever wondered why even when these studios are able to create almost lifelike representations of plants and animals and even minute details such as beautifully curly hair, individual blades of grass, and nearly perfect recreations of the real world environments we interact with every day…why do they almost always create the characters as if they were traditional cartoon caricatures? And why when they try to create lifelike human characters, they just look so darn strange?
What is the Uncanny Valley?
The Uncanny Valley is a theory that came from Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist who worked in the fields of robotics and automation. When he came up with the idea in 1970, he had noticed that there is a positive correlation between the way humans develop a greater connection and affinity for artificial humans as they become more realistic, but that at a certain point, when these artificial humans become almost perfect, there is a steep drop in our affinity with them as we begin to see them a human but begin to notice slight differences that cause a disconnect between the realness of the artificial human and our expectation of a true human form.
For example, when we look at an industrial robot that looks nothing like a human, we feel little to no connection to this robot. But when we interact with a cute child’s toy that looks like a humanoid robot, we may feel basic emotions and form shallow bonds with this humanlike toy.
If we were to interact with a robot like the famed C-3PO from the Star Wars films, we may even begin to build what could be described as a friendship with this robot due to its humanlike personality traits and humanlike form.
But if we were to see a robot that looked exactly like a human but who was unable to move their eyebrows or form familiar facial expressions when speaking, we would feel strange interacting with this robot because we would expect a ‘human’ to be able to do these things. When our expectations were not met, we feel a discomforting disconnect.
Examples of Human Lookalikes: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly…
There are plenty of examples of human lookalikes—from movies and television to robots that help provide services such as serving food or patrolling shopping centers alongside other law-enforcement agents—and each one evokes a slightly different reaction from the public.
Here are some examples of human lookalikes from all across the spectrum, from feel-good friends to utterly cringeworthy.
The Good: Human Lookalikes that Make Us Feel an Emotional Connection
As mentioned above, Pixar has a special way of creating unique animated characters with just enough human traits to help us form strong emotional connections, but cartoony enough to keep them well away from falling into the Uncanny Valley.
One of my favorite examples of this is the animated film Up. The first five to ten minutes of this film create one of the most emotional experiences in all of modern cinema. But, how does Pixar create these characters in a way they makes them so easy to connect to?
Part of what makes them so relatable without becoming off-putting is the over-exaggeration of facial and body features such as large noses and eyes, overly squared or rounded facial structures, or head-to-body ratios that are cartoonishly inaccurate.
By creating these characters in this way, they allow us to view them as non-humans doing humanlike things, which we often find appealing, similar to how we often anthropomorphize animals or objects that look or act in ways we typically understand as ‘human.’
The Bad: Human Lookalikes that Tried Too Hard and Didn’t Quite Make it
But not all examples of human lookalikes are found in film and pop culture. There is a growing trend of trying to create humanlike robots that can be used in offices and other public spaces to interact with humans.
One example of this is the Actroid robot created by the Japanese firm Kokoro Company Ltd.
As you can see, this android is aiming to be humanlike, with typical body ratios, natural-looking facial structure, and clothing that would be appropriate for a human to be wearing in a similar situation.
And while this is obviously aiming to be as humanlike as possible, it is quite evident that it is a robot and doesn’t quite elicit the uncomfortable feelings we might experience from the Uncanny Valley.
The Ugly: Human Lookalikes that Made us Cringe
Actor Tom Hanks is no newbie when it comes to voicing animated characters in films, but not all of his animated films have received the same warm welcome from critics and fans.
One such film is the 2004 animated Christmas movie The Polar Express.
Though this movie was given high praise for its overall visual appeal and unique story, many who saw the film left with an uneasy feeling brought on by the strange, waxy emotions of the human characters.
This is a perfect example of how a human lookalike being too authentic-looking can cause us to feel uncomfortable.
Since we saw what looked like humans, we expected to see human actions and movements, especially those small micro-movements in the eyes and face. When we don’t see those, we feel a disconnect between what we expect and what we actually see.
Why Do We React So Strongly to Human Lookalikes?
When humans interact with each other, we don’t merely interact using spoken words. We also read each other’s body language and facial expressions for additional clues and context about what is being said.
For example, if someone says, “I am so excited,” this could mean several things based on the context. We could understand it as authentic excitement if the person says it with a slightly high-pitched tone and with raised eyebrows and a slight flush in the cheeks. But if the same person says the same thing with a deeper, slower tone, slight downward turn at the corners of the mouth, and a slight slouch in their spine, it might be a sign that what they are saying is sarcastic.
When we interact with human-lookalikes that are cartoonish, we can expect to skip the micro-movements and subtle clues and read into the more obvious things like tone. Still, when we interact with an almost lifelike human lookalike, and we don’t receive these same micro-clues we expect from a human, it seems strange.
Does Everyone Experience the Uncanny Valley Effect the Same?
As demographics change across the globe and the average age of populations continues to increase, especially in industrialized nations, there is an increasing interest in using robots to provide services and act as caretakers to the older generation, freeing up more of the younger generation to enter into the workforce.
With this push comes interesting questions about how the Uncanny Valley affects people from different age groups.
At least one research project has found that while the Uncanny Valley Effect is prevalent among younger and middle-aged adults, adults in the older cohorts did not show the same negative reaction to humanlike robots—in fact, they actually preferred interacting with robots that appeared more human.
The idea of having robots to help us throughout our lives is not a new one. Cartoons such as The Jetsons, which aired for the first time in 1962, were already toying with the idea of robot helpers to do all manner of tasks around the house.
Today we are closer than ever to fulfilling this dream. We have digital assistants in the form of Siri and Alexa, we have cars that can drive themselves (at least under specific circumstances), and we even have robotic security guards.
But as these digital helpers become more advanced, we are starting to enter into the realm of the Uncanny Valley, and we must tread carefully if we want people to feel comfortable with these new additions to public life.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in psychology, Scott went on to work as a teacher and educational counselor while working towards his master’s degree. He has spent several years working with children and adults and has personal experience with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Dyslexia, and Depression.