Biased Analysis in Behavior Research

The study of apparent behavior

One of the most intriguing experiments in the history of psychology is the one performed by Heider and Simmel – Heider, F, & Simmel, M. (1944):  “An experimental study of apparent behavior“. American Journal of Psychology, 57, 243–259.

In brief, the authors showed some geometric shapes moving around the screen and asked the subjects to give an interpretation of what they were seeing. The majority of the subjects “interpreted the picture in terms of actions of animated beings, chiefly of persons.” (Heider & Simmel’s words). Very convoluted stories, and motives, underlying the on-screen dynamics came up in the subjects’ reports. This interpretation occurred both in the “naive” (i.e. no experimental instructions/questions) and the “controlled” (i.e. experimenter-driven interpretation and questions) conditions. The subjects clearly saw behavior in the movie.

The innate ability to read behavior

All subjects (111 out of 114 subjects) interpreted the movie by attributing human qualities to the shapes. (to be precise, 33 out of 34 in the naive – i.e not instructed-condition). The shapes are perceived as ‘animated’ (i.e. endowed with ‘animacy’) because human beings have an innate ability to tell biological (i.e. belonging to an animated being) from non-biological motion (see Biological motion processing as a hallmark of social cognition).
As soon as the shapes are perceived as animated, the scene is interpreted in the context of actors, objects, goals, motives, and emotions. Motion biases our perception and interpretation of the scene – this ability has been exquisitely harnessed by Disney’s animators to pour life in their characters (12 basic principles of animation and Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life)

Motion quickly becomes behavior, and behavior becomes a proxy (i.e. an observable quantity) that pivots the interpretations of the scene according to a fabric of motives, goals, and emotions centred on the actors.

This “cognitive bias” is so strong that it applies even to actors (i.e. shapes) intrinsically incapable of producing real behavior (hence, the apparent behavior).

These results suggest that:


Behavior is a one-way bridge to the mind

Human beings constantly read and interpret other people’s behavior using a frame of reference – usually assuming that other people have a brain, or a mind (see the Theory of Mind entry on Wikipedia).
The moment we perceive the actor as having a mind we overload the actor with a whole system of beliefs/goals/motives/intentions/emotions.

Strting from the center, we ask whether the motion is biological or not. if the answer is positive, then motion is equated to behavior. The presence of behavior in an animated object drives us to think the object has a mind. Note the unidirectional arrows: it is difficult to “unsee” behavior.

Human beings harness this innate ability to grasp the mental processes that regulate other people’s actions in order to predict future behavior, to understand emotions, and to discover intentions in other human beings.

Reading behavior: a double-edged sword

Behavior interpretation, as many other cognitive biases, is extremely fast and efficient in producing actionable insights. Meaning that, on average, this framing system is accurate enough to promote survival in our social system. (Indeed, this guess-work is complicated by the fact that it is difficult to get a grasp of our own mental status – being increasingly more difficulty as we go deeper in the analysis …)

But here is the catch: this innate ability to read behavior has probably evolved for guessing other people’s (i.e. human beings) mental processes.

Reading human beings’ behavior – taken from :

Through experience, we collect data on the cause-effect chains that regulate human behavior, we develop a model of how our conspecific’s mind works.

This collection of data gathered through social/cultural learning and introspection culminates in a theory of mind that helps human beings in reading human being’s behavior. But this may be a problem for the analysis of animal (i.e. non-human) behavior.

Heider and Simmel clearly showed that this ability it is at work even when we are observing actors incapable of any internally-driven behavior (e.g. geometric shapes). This automatic process completely fails to acknowledge the quality/nature of the cognitive processes (or the lack thereof) underlying the observed behavior.

Interacting with non-human actors

Now I wonder to what extent our interaction with other systems (animated and unanimated) is biased by this automatic process of behavior interpretation.

Boston dynamics and the dynamic psychology of human-robot interaction

This company has made headlines lately for showing videos of its robots. Apart from the impressive capabilities of these robots, what struck me (and many people in the comments and blogs related to these videos) is how uncomfortable it is to deal (at the emotional level) with these machines.

I was particularly struck by the emotions I felt when one of the Boston dynamics researchers was pushing the robot to make it fall (see the youtube clip above at ~2:00). I felt terribly sorry for this robot. But the thing is that He/She/It (e.g. the robot) will never feel sorry for me in the opposite situation. So now we have a communication breakdown and at some point I will feel disconnected. How will I interact with this machine then?

However, Robots may also be used to treat anxiety. The thing is that we are just starting to really appreciate the full implications of interacting with non-human actors as they start to be ever more present in our society.

Websites, products and Artificial intelligence: a stream of emotions

It is also interesting to note how a website or your interaction with a service or a commercial product may have a deeper emotional entangling than you imagine. (I suggest you take a look at Alterspark and its excellent workshop – Disclaimer: I’ve been working as a Product developer and Consultant at Alterspark)


Leonardo Restivo

Behavioral Neuroscientist , M.Sc., Ph.D. - Passionate about Behavior, Data Visualization & Psychology