Loneliness narrows the uncanny valley

Starved for a little social contact? The face of a robot or doll will seem more alive to you than to someone with a brimming social life.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

Telenoid R1 telepresence robot. Osaka University and ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory

Talking to inanimate objects when you're feeling lonely may not be so strange after all. According to new research conducted by a team at Darmouth College in the UK and Harvard University in the US, we're more likely to perceive life in inanimate faces when we're feeling socially disconnected. In short, if you're low on human contact, you might start feeling a little less creeped out by the uncanny valley -- because those faces look more alive to you.

This is because, when people are starved of social contact, they start attributing human characteristics to objects: a face on a volleyball, for instance. Or a doll. Or... a robot.

"This increased sensitivity to animacy suggests that people are casting a wide net when looking for people they can possibly relate to -- which may ultimately help them maximize opportunities to renew social connections," explained psychological scientist and lead researcher Katherine Powers.

The findings, Powers said, could help shed light on new types of relationships in the modern age: relationships with pets, for example -- but also with online avatars, computers, mobile phones, and robots.

The team tasked 30 subjects, undergraduate students, with identifying faces as human or non-human. These 90 faces consisted of a human face blended with a doll's face, from a scale of 0 percent to 100 percent human. They were presented in random order, and the students had to label each face as either animate or inanimate.

Powers et al, Dartmouth College

For the second part of the study, the students had to fill out a survey that gauged each individual's desire for social contact and acceptance, where they had to mark out of 10 how strongly they agree with such statements as "I want other people to accept me".

A second group of students undertook a different test. They had to fill out a questionnaire that then seemed to provide feedback about the student's future (in reality, this was randomised). Some students were told that their lives would be isolated and lonely, while others were told that they would have fulfilling relationships. This group of students was then asked to complete the face test.

What the researchers found was that the test subjects who indicated a stronger desire for social acceptance and social contact, and those who had been told that their lives would be lonely, had lower thresholds for what they deemed animate faces.

"What's really interesting here is the degree of variability in this perception. Even though two people may be looking at the same face, the point at which they see life and decide that person is worthy of meaningful social interaction may not be the same -- our findings show that it depends on an individual's social relationship status and motivations for future social interactions," Powers said.

"I think the fact that we can observe such a bias in the perception of basic social cues really underscores the fundamental nature of the human need for social connection."

You can view the full study, "Social Connection Modulates Perceptions of Animacy", in the journal Psychological Science.