The automaticity of perceiving animacy: Goal-directed motion in simple shapes influences visuomotor behavior even when task-irrelevant


Visual processing recovers not only simple features, such as color and shape, but also seemingly higher-level properties, such as animacy. Indeed, even abstract geometric shapes are readily perceived as intentional agents when they move in certain ways, and such percepts can dramatically influence behavior. In the wolfpack effect, for example, subjects maneuver a disc around a display in order to avoid several randomly moving darts. When the darts point toward the disc, subjects (falsely) perceive that the darts are chasing them, and this impairs several types of visuomotor performance. Are such effects reflexive, automatic features of visual processing? Or might they instead arise only as contingent strategies in tasks in which subjects must interact with (and thus focus on the features of) such objects? We explored these questions in an especially direct way— by embedding such displays into the background of a completely independent foraging'' task. Subjects now moved their disc to collect small food’’ dots (which appeared sequentially in random locations) as quickly as possible. The darts were task-irrelevant, and subjects were encouraged to ignore them. Nevertheless, foraging was impaired when the randomly moving darts pointed at the subjects’ disc, as compared to control conditions in which they were either oriented orthogonally to the subjects’ disc or pointed at another moving shape— thereby controlling for nonsocial factors. The perception of animacy thus influences downstream visuomotor behavior in an automatic manner, such that subjects cannot completely override the influences of seemingly animate shapes even while attempting to ignore them.

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(3), 797-802