Bully Triangles and Terrified Circles

There is an interesting video animation created by two psychologists, Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel, to illustrate the concept of “intentional causality”, whatever that is. In the video, there is a large rectangle, perhaps representing a house, a large aggressive triangle, a small triangle, and a terrified circle.  The triangles and circle appear to have intent and emotion, which the viewer senses based on the motions exhibited by these geometrical shapes.  Watch the animation and see what I mean:

The reason I find this interesting is the fact that the viewer is compelled to assign personalities to the geometric shapes and to also make up a mental “story” about what is happening in the video.  This seems ridiculous on the face of it.  Intellectually, we know that the animator is just moving these crudely drawn shapes around on the screen.  Yet, the movements of the objects contribute to the perception of intent and emotion.  Our minds are so receptive to this that we perceive these non-living objects as having personalities.  Psychologists interpret the viewer’s inclination to anthropomorphize the geometric “actors” as an inborn trait.  Infants apparently are capable of identifying bullies and victims and having expectations about pursuits they are shown.  In other words, humans are hard-wired from an early age to see causality, even when the interacting objects are simple geometric shapes.

What does this tell us about making effective videos?  Well, it tells us that people are willing to accept images, even crude representations, that appear to have “personalities” as being worthy of attention and empathy.  It also reveals our need to make up a story about whatever we are seeing and to become emotionally invested in the outcome.  Of course, I’m not telling you anything new.  We know how popular cartoons and animated features are.  Watching this very crude animation, however, drives home the point that using icons can be just as effective as using real people to deliver a message or tell a story.  I also recall reading somewhere (can’t put my hands on it right now) that the more iconic the image, the more the viewer is likely to accept the message.