al Awlaki, the “Uncanny Valley” and Writing Empathetic Characters

Here’s an article about real world narrative I published shortly after al Awlaki, an American recruiter for terrorism, was killed in a raid:

Recently, al Awlaki (the infamous “American” Al Qaeda) was killed by American forces. He was viewed as a great threat because of his ability to speak to the domestic population of the United States in their own language and culture and to inspire terrorist acts by those susceptible to his message of jihad.

While these allegations are certainly true, they alone do not explain the intensity with which Awlaki was both feared and despised. In fact, there is another quality he possessed that amplified the trepidation and derision he precipitated: he fell into the “Uncanny Valley.”

“Uncanny Valley” is a term generally used to define any non-human entity whose attributes are just human enough to be disturbing. For example psychological test have been run that chart an empathy line against robots whose features range from fully mechanical to completely human in appearance. At first, the results were predictable: the more human the robot appeared, the more empathetic people were to it.

But, as the human qualities reached a point where they became “almost human” there was a sudden drop-off in empathy as steep as a cliff. In fact, the reaction to such an entity reached a point where it plummeted below zero empathy into the realm of negative empathy, documented as “revulsion.”

The same test was also run using stuffed animals and the results were essentially the same – our empathy increases as human likeness increases until a sharp break point is reached where additional increases quickly reverse the trend. Once the line hits bottom and as human similarity continue to increase, eventually empathy rises again into the positive, and ultimately reaches maximum when the non-human entity appears absolutely identical to a human, even though one knows it really is not.

Now this aspect of human psychology has tremendous implication for writers, especially in the creation and development of characters. While it has been explored directly in such works as the I, Robot novels by Asimov (and especially well handled in the movie, Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams) it is always at work in the relationship between an audience and the fictional entities that populate the stories it reads and watches.

Let me propose that the Uncanny Valley not only pertains to the visual qualities of non-human entities, but to how we intuitively sense their humanity, almost as if we were automatically and subconsciously performing a Turing Test on every person we meet.

I believe we are. I believe we are prepared to accept something totally alien as a risk of unknown potential, while any creature we can identify as of human essence is a known quantity and, therefore, a predictable risk at worst. But some one or some thing that is just off-kilter enough is loose-canon when it comes to threat. We might find ourselves lulled into complacency only to be set-upon when our guard is down.

For example, we are afraid of an earthquake or tornado because it is random and chaotic. We are afraid of bears in a different way because they share our emotions and we understand what they might do. But a Terminator or a demonic spirit is far more terrifying for while we are able to frame it as an entity in our minds, we are unable to fathom its motivations or to predict its behavior, which are often contrary to humanity.

In contrast, consider animated cartoons in which cars, cattle, or cantaloupes may all engender empathy from an audience because they are carefully (albeit intuitively) crafted to fall far enough from human-looking to avoid the Uncanny Valley on one side, and close enough to human in spirit to avoid the Uncanny Valley on the other.

Many of the disfigured humans of fiction are often drawn to revolt us in appearance while connecting to us in their humanity. And, of course, many characters are written to illustrate that even the most beautiful can have revolting souls.

Now for the sake of a mental exercise, consider how this holds true in real life. For example, most of us find the Elephant Man uncomfortable to look at, yet empathize deeply with his heart. But what of those in our own live who have been badly burned or born with physical defects? What must that life be like when you are constantly reminded, subliminally, that others shun you as non-human? There are lessons here for our spiritual growth and stories to be told.

Let’s shift gears, for a moment, and go to the opposite extreme – the science of mind, the neurology of psychology. If you go to Wikipedia and look up Uncanny Valley you’ll find graph that shows the sudden dip and re-rise of the empathy line.

I was immediately struck by how similar that line is to the “action potential” of a neuron in the brain. After a neuron fires, it is chemically inhibited from firing again immediately. Rather, the “action potential” goes from maximum, down a steep cliff during the actual firing to a negative action potential until the forces that lead to the ability to fire recharge.

I’m going to make a leap here and share with you an aspect of the psychology behind Dramatica – a theory we call Mental Relativity. As part of the theory we propose (because of what we have observed in our model of story structure) that dynamics in the electro-chemical operations of the brain are reflected, almost as fractals, in the high-level dynamics of psychological processes. Simply put, psychology exhibits sympathetic vibrations of the patterns of physical brain function.

Now, I realize there are no studies (to my knowledge) that explore this, but is absolutely is a prediction of the Mental Relativity theory. But why would this be? Consider one potential explanation…

It is one of our most essential survival tools to be able to recognize objects, patterns, edges, what is part of something and what is not. The same curve we see in neurons or in the Uncanny Valley actually is just a reflection of our ability to define the limit of things.

We use this to see a rock in our path or to determine if figure coming through the mist is a friend or foe. It is what allows us to describe the nature of an object or a person and the scope of an argument or a story.

And so, with an aspect of our minds that is so foundational and all pervasive, a wise author would give it heed when building characters to be attractive or off-putting, a wise person would think twice about from whom they turn away (and why), and as for al Awlaki, well, he was American enough to connect with those who felt isolated, but just a little bit too non-American to avoid our ire.

Melanie Anne Phillips