The influence of spatial context and the role of intentionality in the interpretation of animacy from motion

Patrice D. Tremoulet, Jacob Feldman

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We present three experiments investigating how spatial context influences the attribution of animacy to a moving target. Each of our displays contained a moving object (the target) that might, depending on the way it moved, convey the impression that it was alive (animate). We investigated the mechanisms underlying this attribution by manipulating the nature of the spatial context surrounding the target In Experiment 1, the context consisted of a simple static dot (the foil), whose position relative to the target's trajectory was manipulated. With some foil positions-for example, when the foil was lying along the path traveled by the target-animacy judgments were elevated relative to control foil locations, apparently because this context supported the impression that the target was "reacting to" or was in some other way mentally influenced by the foil. In Experiment 2, contexts consisted of a static oriented rectangle (the "paddle"). On some trials, the target collided with the paddle in a way that seemed to physically account for the target's motion pattern (in the sense of having imparted momentum to it); this condition reduced animacy ratings. Experiment 3 was similar, except that the paddles themselves were in motion; again, animacy attribution was suppressed when the target's motion seemed to have been caused by a collision with the paddle. Hence, animacy attributions can be either elevated or suppressed by the nature of the environment and the target's interaction with it Animacy attribution tracks intentionality attribution; contrary to some earlier proposals, we conclude that attributing animacy involves, and may even require, attributing to the target some minimal mental capacity sufficient to endow the target with intentionality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1047-1058
Number of pages12
JournalPerception and Psychophysics
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Sensory Systems
  • General Psychology


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