2014: Is This Face Alive?

Social Connection Modulates Perceptions of Animacy

Using sets of morphed images created from animate (human) and inanimate (doll) faces, we found converging evidence across two studies showing that the motivation to connect with other people systematically alters the interpretation of the physical features that signal that a face is alive. Specifically, in their efforts to find and connect with other social agents, individuals who feel socially disconnected actually decrease their thresholds for what it means to be alive, consistently observing animacy when fewer definitively human cues are present. From an evolutionary perspective, overattributing animacy may be an adaptive strategy that allows people to cast a wide net when identifying possible sources of social connection and maximize their opportunities to renew social relationships.

Each trial began with participants clicking a “start” button located in the bottom center of the screen. Once clicked, a face appeared, and participants were instructed to categorize that face as either “animate” or “inanimate” by clicking the corresponding label located at either the top-left or top-right corner of the screen. Faces were presented in a random order, and the location of the labels on the screen was counterbalanced across participants.

Compared with individuals who felt socially connected, individuals characterized by a chronic desire for social connections…or those who have these needs momentarily heightened through an experimental manipulation…were consistently more likely to say a morphed face was alive.

—Katherine E. Powers, Andrea L. Worsham, Jonathan B. Freeman, Thalia Wheatley, and Todd F. Heatherton: “Social Connection Modulates Perceptions of Animacy” (2014); text here.

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