For this week’s test, it’s important that you know nothing about the test so you’ll have to take it and then read about it. First, watch this short silent animation (1:30) of some geometric shapes:
Now write a brief description of what happened in the animation. If you need to rewatch the video to refresh your memory of the details, you can. Just don’t read anything about the video before you finish writing your description.
Done? Okay, now it’s safe to read on.
The Heider-Simmel Animation
The animation you watched is from a landmark experiment conducted by psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel in the 1940s. Heider and Simmel were among the first researchers to study attribution of causality or how we use information to arrive at an explanation of what has caused events (or more simply “why did this happen?”).
Attributing cause in social situations requires what researchers in the field of autism often refer to as theory of mind, mentalizing or cognitive empathy. Before you run off screaming into the night, bear with me, because I think there are some interesting things we can learn from how we interpret the animation.
First, let’s talk about why the animation is made up of shapes and how that changes things, especially for autistic viewers. Heider and Simmel discovered that when most people watch an animation of independently moving geometric shapes, they attribute intentional movement and goal-directed interactions to the shapes. This was interesting to the two researchers because the attribution happens in the absence of common social cues like body language, facial expressions or speech. And it turns out that their findings are highly replicable. Nearly everyone who watches the animation, when asked to describe it, comes up with a fairly detailed “story” of what is happening.
In the past couple of decades, Heider-Simmel type animations have been used as part of autism research on theory of mind and social impairment. Ami Klin makes some interesting points about why. The most obvious reason is the lack of conventional person-based social signals. By stripping out body language and facial expressions–or even any human representation at all–there is a leveling of the playing field for those of us who don’t glean much information from nonverbal signals.
The animations also remove all verbal interaction, which Klin says many autistic adults learn to use as an interpretative strategy in social interaction. If we can’t intuit what is happening socially, we can still ask a lot of questions, do research, gather data, develop social scripts, etc. as a way of supporting our interpretation of a situation. He even takes this one step further to say that the real difficulty many autistic people experience is in recognizing that a social demand exists in a novel social situation.
Remember my experience from last week with The Lady Of The Five Excuses? That’s exactly what he’s talking about. In a lab setting, theory of mind experiments are presented as such. Where will Sally look for the marble? signals to the research participant that a problem needs to be solved and a lot of autistic adults are good at reasoning out the solution to defined problems. Unfortunately, there’s no one following me around in real life saying things like, “why does The Lady Of The Five Excuses not want to help you Do The Thing here?”
That’s the difference between controlled clinical theory of mind experiments and real life social interaction. Skill at one does not necessarily predict skill at the other.
Taking the Test
So that’s the underlying theory behind the test. When the animations are used in actual research, a lot of detailed data is collected and scored on various scales. Since we’re doing Crowd Sourced Science, we’ll have to interpret our own results as best we can.
I hope you watched the video and wrote down your impressions before reading the background. Although I had seen this animation mentioned a long time ago in the context of autism research, I didn’t know much about it. I did know that the figures were meant to be interpreted anthropomorphically, but I would have done that anyhow, given the strong emotions I feel when watching the video, so I don’t think I had too much of an advantage. I waited until after writing my description to do more detailed research.
Here is my description:
The big triangle (BT) is in an enclosed structure with a door. A little triangle (LT) and a circle (C) come along. They hang around in a sort of confused way until BT comes out. BT and LT argue, with LT first being the aggressor then BT getting really aggressive and bullying/chasing LT. C hides behind the door and watches. When LT runs around the corner and hides, C goes into the building and closes the door. BT runs around a little outside then follows C into the building and closes the door. C is nervous and moves around the room frantically, trying to hide or escape from BT’s anger. LT opens the door and helps C escape. They run around a little in confusion until BT comes out to chase them and they run away together. BT goes back into the building and breaks the walls in anger.
Interpreting the Results
There are a number of ways descriptions of the video can be interpreted and evaluated. The article I linked to (as well as this one by Castelli and Frith) goes into greater detail if you’re interested. I’m going to focus on one specific aspect of interpretation, which is the attribution of social meaning to the animation.
There are basically three broad levels on which people approach attribution of causality in Heider-Simmel animations:
Literal interpretation. The geometric figures are described only as such and no motivation or anthropomorphic qualities are attributed to them. Example: the small triangle moved parallel to the circle, the large triangle moved out of the rectangle, the small and large triangles came into contact three times in a row.
Goal-direct interpretation. The figures are described as having anthropomorphic actions like running, hiding, fighting, dancing or fleeing. In other words, they are trying to achieve certain physical goals but there is little to no description of motivations or desires. The description is written mostly from the perspective of an impartial observer who is recording the actions of an event. Example: the small triangle ran around the house twice, the large triangle chased the small triangle around the corner, the circle moved into the corner as the large triangle approached it.
Social attribution interpretation. The figures are described as having anthropomorphic actions as well as feelings and motivation (affective and cognitive mental states). There is an emphasis on why the figures act or react the way they do, with detailed attribution of intent. Example: the circle is trying to persuade the large triangle, the large triangle is jealous, the small triangle is trying to coax the circle, the large triangle is manipulating the circle’s feelings, the two small shapes are celebrating their deception of the large triangle. Additionally, there is often a highly detailed narrative used to explain what has happened (a gestalt explanation). Example: the small shapes are friends and the big triangle is a bully, the circle was supposed to go on a date with the big triangle but he got angry when he saw her with the small triangle.
When I reread my description in this context, I see that I’m on the border between #2 and #3, and the social attribution interpretations that I do make are often quite crude and fractured. I attributed human-like actions and emotions to the shapes, but don’t have a lot to say about intent and certainly didn’t think to create a narrative storyline for the shapes.
When I rewatched the video after doing the research for this post, I noticed more details. For example, the big triangle seems to shake its head ‘no’ and the circle seems to make some progress in calming the big triangle down by cowering and acting submissive when they’re inside the house. But I think I saw those things on my third viewing because I knew that I was supposed to be looking for intent. They didn’t occur to me on the first two viewings, where I had no information about how others had interpreted the animation.
There are quite a few research papers that discuss why autistic people often use fewer social attribution descriptors for Heider-Simmel animations. The two papers I linked to are a good starting place if you’re curious.
Not surprisingly, I have a few theories of my own:
Dude, they’re triangles. Being more literal thinkers predisposes autistic viewers to interpret the animation more literally, focusing on the actions of the shapes rather than attributing emotional or mental states to the objects. I admit to some difficulty getting past the fact that they’re faceless shapes and clearly not people.
Gestalt vs. details. Autistic people are detail-focused, often at the expense of gestalt (big picture). Just as I scored poorly on the city versus mountain picture test by focusing too much on a single detail (roads!), I found that I was more focused on describing each segment of the action rather than integrating the segments into a larger narrative.
Online vs. offline processing. Castelli and Frith’s paper talks about online versus offline processing of social events and that really hits home with me. I do most of social attribution processing offline, before or after the fact. People with typical social skills do a great deal of processing on-the-fly as the interaction unfolds (which Castelli and Frith refer to as online processing). Online processing is especially challenging for me in new situations, like interpreting an animation sequence with little detail about what I’m “supposed to be” seeing.
The Bottom Line
This isn’t as well suited to “getting results” as some of the other quantitative quizzes, but I was surprised at how accurately it seemed to gauge my thinking style and approach when it comes to social interaction.
On an unrelated note: When I wrote the autistic gaze post, I said that I don’t intentionally use my peripheral vision to look at things. Well, I was wrong. This weekend I went to see Captain America in IMAX 3-D and it was super overloading. About halfway through the film, I realized that I kept turning my head to the side and trying to watch the screen out of the corner of my eyes, which is impossible when wearing 3-D glasses.