The Uncanny Valley

I really do not like monkeys.

I know that many people think monkeys are cute, endearing, funny. When they see them in a zoo, they exclaim how similar they are to us. Even I have experienced this, holding up my grandma's "magic mirror" to the pane of glass and watching the little dark brown monkeys with their silky black fur coming up and looking at themselves in the mirror. These monkeys, catlike, with their thick fur and long glossy tails, didn't offend me much.

But then our zoo got a large habitat for chimpanzees.

These were not cute. They we're like hairy, messy, shameless humans. They screeched loudly. They stuck dirty fingers in up their wide nostrils and leered at the people who came to see them. They scratched their bare butts with long, cracked nails. They bared their teeth and shrieked.

The chimpanzees in the new section of the zoo were big news in my town. But I only lingered at their area for a few minutes before moving on. They made me uncomfortable, with their big, wet lips flopping back and showing brick-like yellow teeth. I wasn't bored. I was disgusted. And fearful. I felt uneasy, the way you do moments before something scary happens in a movie. I had to move away.

I had fallen into the uncanny valley.

The Uncanny Valley is the term for when an artificial character is very close to being human, and therefore eliciting a positive emotional response, but something about it is wrong and provokes feelings of revulsion or disgust. For example a corpse of a human looks exactly like a person...but instinctively we know that it is not alive and we are repulsed by it. For me, monkeys fall into that valley. They don't look like animals to me. They look like deformed humans, and that "close-but-no-cigar" quality makes me uneasy. It's the same reason people are afraid of clowns, dummies, ghosts, mummies, vampires, werewolves....they resemble humans, but a key element is missing. There is simply a wrongness that can be hard to define.

One way to bridge the Uncanny Valley is to employ cuteness. To me, that sounded a little like saying, "The way to make it better is to make it better," or "To look more beautiful, you have to make yourself beautiful." That statement gives no actual direction. But a little bit of research led me to the definition of neoteny: retention of immature characteristics into adulthood. When we say something is cute, that something generally resembles the young form of an animal: a proportionally large head, small ears and nose, big eyes. And baby animals are made to be cute so that we instinctively want to protect, nourish, and feed them. Small dogs have been bred down to mature sexually but not physically--to us, a pug or a beagle or a dachshund is cuter than a wolf. Giving something that falls into the uncanny valley features of cuteness can trump the revulsion we feel when we look at it.

Take the Navi in Avatar for example. By definition, they should fall into the uncanny valley: they strongly resemble humans, but they clearly are different. They should elicit revulsion. But I, like many people, found them endearing and attractive. The designers of the Navi crossed the uncanny valley on the Feline Bridge: they made them look vaguely cat-like. They clearly have cat ears, they have small, wide noses like cats, and their heads are slightly larger in proportion to their bodies than we are.

The uncanny valley is one of those concepts that I love, because it accurately describes something that I feel but can't articulate. It's something you hear about and exclaim, "Yes! I know exactly what you mean!" It's why monkeys make me uncomfortable, but blue humanoids with cat ears don't. It may also be a survival mechanism brought to us by our good ole friend Evolution. It may have helped humans (and other animals) avoid sick, contagious members of the species. I am always fascinated by the way we've outgrown our evolution and really have to decode our own reactions and instincts.


  1. thank u for explaining about the avatar

    at first i thought about how it should fall into the uncanny valley but didnt really feel like it was "wrong"

  2. Hello Amanda.
    I study medialogy in Copenhagen, and am well aware of the uncanny valley theory. The theory was developed in relation to the appearance of human-like robots, but has also been adopted in relation to computer graphic. You mentioned Avatar. The Navi people could very well have been coloured blue to prevent you from ending in the uncanny valley, the colour makes them so distinct from us. That way I don't see it as the uncanny valley has been crossed in that case.

    Take this picture instead: http://www.sciencepresse.qc.ca/sites/www.sciencepresse.qc.ca/files/image/2010/12/the-uncanny-valley.jpg
    It looks very human like, but she is sort of creepy - at least to me.

    You also mention ghosts, mummies, vampires and werewolves. The uncanny valley has nothing to do with fear. Fear is more likely to be the reason why people doesn't like these fictive creatures. Fear adopted through books and movies most likely.

    Just some thoughts.