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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2019 Feb;148(2):252-271. doi: 10.1037/xge0000557.

Perception in dynamic scenes: What is your Heider capacity?

Author information

Visual Attention Lab, Harvard Medical School/Brigham & Women's Hospital.
Visual Attention Lab, Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Department of Computer Science, Stanford University.
Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


The classic animation experiment by Heider and Simmel (1944) revealed that humans have a strong tendency to impose narrative even on displays showing interactions between simple geometric shapes. In their most famous animation with three simple shapes, observers almost inevitably interpreted them as rational agents with intentions, desires, and beliefs ("That nasty big triangle!"). Much work on dynamic scenes has identified basic visual properties that can make shapes seem animate. Here, we investigate the limits on the ability to use narrative to share information about animated scenes. We created 30 second Heider-style cartoons with 3-9 items. Item trajectories were generated automatically by a simple set of rules, but without a script. In Experiments 1 and 2, 10 observers wrote short narratives for each cartoon. Next, new observers were shown a cartoon and then presented with a narrative generated for that specific cartoon or one generated for a different cartoon having the same items. Observers rated the fit of the narrative to the cartoon on a scale from 1 (clearly does not fit) to 5 (clearly fits). Performance declined markedly when the number of items was larger than 3. Experiment 3 had observers determine if a short clip of a cartoon came from a longer clip. Experiment 4 had observers determine which of two narratives fit a cartoon. Finally, in Experiment 5, narratives always mentioned every item in a display. In all cases of matching narrative to cartoon, performance drops most dramatically between 3 and 4 items. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

[Available on 2020-02-01]
[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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