The automaticity of perceiving animacy
 
 
Here are some demonstrations of the various conditions discussed in the following paper:
van Buren, B., Uddenberg, S., & Scholl, B. J. (2016). The automaticity of perceiving animacy: Goal-directed motion in simple shapes influences visuomotor behavior even when task-irrelevant. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23, 797-802.
These demonstrations are provided as Quicktime movies, which can be downloaded or viewed directly in most web-browsers. These movies are a bit large and choppy, but they should be sufficient to illustrate the basic conditions. As highly compressed versions of the original stimuli, these movies may not preserve the precise spatial and temporal characteristics of the originals.  
 
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 where 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, compared to control conditions in which they were either oriented orthogonally to the subjects' disc, or pointing at another moving shape -- thereby controlling for non-social 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.  
 
Animation 1: Subject-Directed Wolfpack (4.9 MB)
On Subject-Directed Wolfpack trials, the task-irrelevant darts moved randomly, but always remained oriented toward the subject-controlled foraging disc. Foraging performance was impaired in this condition, despite the fact that the darts were completely task-irrelevant.  
 
Animation 2: Perpendicular to Subject (4.7 MB)
On Perpendicular to Subject trials, the task-irrelevant darts were instead always oriented orthogonally to the subject's disc as they moved randomly. This produced no impression of animacy, and correspondingly, no impairment of foraging performance -- thus ensuring the impairment in Subject-Directed Wolfpack trials is not simply due to the correlated rotary motion of the darts (which was perfectly equated here).  
 
Animation 3: Other-Directed Wolfpack (4.7 MB)
On Other-Directed Wolfpack trials, the task-irrelevant darts were instead always oriented toward a separate (computer-controlled) disc. Foraging times were again unimpaired -- thus ensuring that the impairment in Subject-Directed Wolfpack trials must reflect social significance and perceived animacy, rather than any lower-level factors (e.g. related to grouping or misperceived spatial positions based on coordinated orientation), since those were perfectly equated here. In other words, background animate motion of this type only impairs performance when the wolfpack is facing you.