Seeing social signals everywhere

'Pareidolia': Seeing faces EVERYWHERE [All Ages]

Opening Questions

If social faces are so important to us, do we ever make mistakes and see  faces where there aren’t any?


Play the audience the set of images in the gallery and ask them if they can see the face in each picture.

Faces are so important to our species, that we tend to see them everywhere.

Discussion Points

Q: Why do we see faces in all these pictures that don’t have faces in them?

A: We have such a strong internal model of the face that if any pattern has three marks in this configuration – two at the top and one at the bottom, like two eyes and a mouth –  then we see it as a face. This is a bit like the newborn’s attending to anything face-like, even a paddle with two blobs at the top and one at the bottom.

Image Gallery

Seeing biological movement: Turning dots into people [All Ages]

Opening Questions

Are we only interested in faces or are people’s bodies important to us as well?


Play the following video and, before you start, ask the audience what the dots are before they start moving. Ask them to shout out when they think they know and play the video. Once they have realized it is humans, ask them what the walkers are doing in each phase and whether it is a boy or a girl. The audience shouldn’t have any difficulty doing this.

Explain that humans seek out other humans and are inclined to interpret others as possessing minds that motivate their behaviour. Movement is a very powerful clue to telling us when we are dealing with another living creature. For example, movement is a rich dynamic signal that not only identifies another as human but also aspects of who they are and what they are like. The brain can extract surprisingly complex social characteristics from just movement alone. It’s amazing that just from a few dots of light our brain can work out the gender, age, and even state of mind of someone we can barely see.

Discussion Points

Q: Why is it important to tell if movement is biological (made by an animal or human)?

A: Lots of things move around in the world but it might be especially important that we can tell from a long distance if an animal or human is coming towards us because it may signal a threat that we have to avoid.

Seeing intention: Treating objects as if they have thoughts and feelings [All Ages]

Opening Questions

Why do we sometimes think of inanimate objects, like our car or computer, as having thoughts and feelings?


Play the the first video and ask the audience what they think about the square and the triangle

If they don’t respond, prompt them – do they think the square is mean or kind or neither? Most of the audience will think that the square is kind and the triangle is mean.

Explain that even though these are just geometric shapes moving around on a screen, we still interpret them as having thoughts and intentions and goals and judge them on that basis.

Discussion Points


Q: At what age do we start to interpret this sort of display as objects having thoughts and feelings?

A: We now know that even babies from 5-months of age interpret the movements of geometric shapes as purposeful. For example, if babies watch this sequence and then are presented with a toy square and a toy triangle, they are much more likely to choose to play with the “kind” square than the “mean” triangle afterwards.


Q: What does the fact that we so readily attribute these objects with intentions say about how our mind makes sense of the world?

A: This means that we are programmed to assume that the world is populated with creatures who act purposefully. We readily attribute human qualities to other animals and even machines. We talk to our pets, and name our cars and plead with our computer not to crash. This way of thinking provides us with a means of predicting how they should behave and how we should treat them.  It is another model that our brain builds to interpret the social world by making assumptions and filling in missing information.