Heider and Simmel (1944) [...]

Take a minute to watch the video above. It’s 90 seconds long.

Try to summarize what happened in the video. We’ll assume that you interpret the shapes as people (almost everyone does). Given that, how would you summarize the story the video depicts? Try to answer the following questions (watch the video again if you want).

  • What kind of a person is the big triangle?
  • What kind of a person is the little triangle?
  • What kind of a person is the circle (disc)?
  • Why did the two triangles fight?
  • Why did the circle go into the house?
  • In one part of the movie the big triangle and the circle were in the house together. What did the big triangle do then? Why?
  • In one part of the movie the big triangle was shut up in the house and tried to get out. What did the little triangle and the circle do then?
  • Why did the big triangle break the house?

Heider and Simmel showed the film to a number of groups of subjects under different conditions. Group one was asked to simple narrate what the saw.

As you can predict, all but one of the 34 students described the film in terms of motivations, goals, and personalities. Scientific American summarizes their findings:

The small triangle was described by half the participants as heroic, valiant, brave, courageous, or defiant. Many interpreted its actions as the result of resentment at being bullied by the big triangle. The experimenters reason that the small triangle is thought of as brave because, unlike the circle, it hits back and defends itself against the big triangle. Like the circle, a third of participants described the small triangle as clever, brainy, or intelligent. And like the big triangle, the small triangle was almost universally referred to as male. [http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/animating-anthropomorphism-giving-minds-to-geometric-shapes-video/ source]

Group two was asked to explicitly discuss personalities and motivation. And group three watched the film backward, while being asked the same questions.[http://www.coli.uni-saarland.de/courses/agentinteraction/contents/papers/Heider44.pdf cite]

In this process, another pattern was discovered — origin of action and sequence of events played a crucial role in interpretation. Again, from a Scientific American summary:

For example, several times in the video the big triangle and circle move in and out of the house. The motivations behind those actions would differ depending on the order in which the movements occurred. When the shapes’ actions were thought of as spontaneous, they might be described as “hiding” or “escaping.” But when the actions were interpreted as reactions, the very same motions might be described as “being forced in” or “being lured in.” [http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/animating-anthropomorphism-giving-minds-to-geometric-shapes-video/ source]

This work demonstrated a number of things to Heider and Simmel. The first was the pervasive nature of the narrative interpretation: out of three groups of about 40 subjects each, only a few subjects chose to interpret it purely geometrically.

Secondly, the story was dependent on the attribution of internal states and characteristics to the shapes.

Finally, agentive-ness (who is perceived as initiating action) played a crucial role in the interpretation of motivation. Viewers developed firm opinions about whether shapes were initiating action or reacting to the actions of others, and these attributions largely determined the viewer’s interpretation of the story.


Comedians narrrate the Heider and Simmel animation [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAnt9II-5Co youtube]

You can make your own Heider-Simmel style animation, and ask others to interpret it on this amusing site. [http://hsit.ict.usc.edu/ site]

Heider later went on to develop Attribution Theory, a crucial contribution to social psychology.

At around the same time, Philippa Foot was investigating aspects of agentive-ness in philosophy, with similar results.




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