The Uncanny Valley; Does your life need a filter for malign violations?

Posted on July 13, 2015

Photo: flickr

In a nutshell, Jentsch explains, the person with the feeling of the uncanny is "not quite 'at home.'" He goes on to describe a man sitting on an old tree trunk, only to find it moving, and suddenly turning into a snake. The uncanny is that time between trunk and snake.

Jentsch also referred to the relationship that would eventually be called the uncanny valley. In the 1970s, the 'uncanny valley' was coined to refer to robots that look too human. Now it is often used to refer to so-good-its-bad computer animation as well. Because it is this place, this almost normal humaness, that freaks the hell right into you

Several studies have found that if you morph human into something that is obviously not-human, people find the place in between to be the most unsettling. But where does that aversion come from? Why do (did?) zombies and things with no lips get under our skin?

There are a lot of wacky theories out there. Neither of these theories really sum it up though.

There is a theory of humor called benign violation that is similar to the perceptual/cognitive conflict theory. If something is wrong, but harmless, then it is funny. In a recent study by McGraw and Warren,4 people found the following both disturbing and funny:

"Before he passed away, Keith’s father told his son to cremate his body. Then he told Keith to do whatever he wished with the remains. Keith decided to snort his dead father’s ashes."

So funny doesn't always have to go with positive emotions. But clearly somewhere along the way, things cross the line from being benign to malign. And then it's not funny anymore. It's stressful. Malign violations are uncanny valley territory.

Then why do we have to put up with such malign violations if we don't want to? That would save us the "trauma" from watching movies like "Shutter Island" or seeing uncanny valley images in pop ups on the internet. It may seem to be better to have a filter for malign violations. For some of us at least. Maybe the lack of filters are meant not to disappoint the thrill seekers out there.

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