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  • Writer's pictureAlexander James

Uncanny Valley: Why We Are So Unsettled By The Nearly-Human

With Halloween just around the corner, people up and down the country will be getting dressed up in frightening costumes and going out to have fun. Some outfits are deliberately designed to shock with fake blood, scythes and chainsaws, but some are unsettling for less tangible reasons, such as zombies and clowns.

In fact, a phobia of clowns is so common that there is a name for it: coulrophobia. This may seem strange; after all, they are supposedly entertainers who provide light relief to more serious goings on. Yet many people are far from amused, and some have an apparently irrational fear of them that seems out of proportion to the threat they represent.

According to researchers at the University of South Wales, more than half of respondents (53.5%) to an international survey of 987 people said that they were afraid of clowns to some degree, and 5% described themselves as being very afraid of them. More women than men were afraid of clowns, and the level of fear tended to decrease with age.

So why should this be the case? There are several theories, including the unpredictable behaviour of a clown causing discomfort; learned fear from family and friends; negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture; the unnatural colouring of the make up; the makeup hiding human emotions; and the exaggerated facial features.

It is these last two reasons that interest psychologists the most according to Psychology Today, because they intersect with the phenomenon of the ‘uncanny valley.’ This is the sense of creepiness and unease that humans feel when they interact with something that has human-like qualities, but seems to be ‘other’ in some way.

The clown is obviously a human being, yet the heavy makeup and absurd clothing and behaviour subverts our understanding of how humans look and behave. This can be more unsettling than being confronted with a character who is decidedly not human, such as a slightly anthropomorphized cat or bear for example.

The phenomenon of the uncanny valley was first identified by a Japanese robotist called Masahiro Mori in the 1970s. Mori was working on creating human-like robots, and at first he noticed that people were more comfortable interacting with the robots when they looked more human.

However, when his robots reached a level of realism that made them appear almost human but not quite, Mori noticed that these levels of comfort began to drop away. The phenomena has also been noted in popular culture. For example, after the test-screenings of the film Shrek, the character of Princess Fiona had to be made less human and more cartoonish.

Psychologists believe that it may be a form of cognitive dissonance that causes the discomfort. Some people find it difficult to deal with the conflicting expectations of reality and become frightened or threatened by it.

As the world becomes more reliant on AI technology and virtual reality, it will be interesting to see whether this discomfort will increase or if humans will learn how to live with it.

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