Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Case of Pareidolia

I spent Sunday evening leisurely surfing the Net and one of the sites I checked out is BoingBoing.

Jason Torchinsky, a guest blogger on BoingBoing had posted this just a couple of days ago: People tend to prefer cars with ‘angry’ faces – although he confessed he didn’t. Auto designers have known this for a while, as the vast majority of cars available today have "faces" (you know, the front end arrangement of headlights, grille, and shapes that we tend to read like a face) that are at least aggressive, and at most absolutely freaking livid” (Webpage, accessed August 03, 2009).

I was intrigued, and so I decided to investigate this study Torchinsky mentioned, that supported this proposition. And so, I found this compelling, if not curious article by Chris Gaylord that first appeared in the Horizons blog of the Christian Science Monitor on October 09, 2008 (Webpage, also accessed August 03, 2009):

One of the coolest aspects of the fabric-covered BMW GINA concept car is a little subconscious. I’m sure I was not the only person who felt, at first sight, as though the car were glaring at me. The sharp hood resembles an angry robot staring you down with its icy eyes. This cyborg look gives the BMW model a futuristic style – something far more appealing than the silly grin of a Toyota Prius. (Check out its smiling mug on the second picture. Don’t you see it?)

Humans personify a lot of things. We see silhouettes of celebrities in our potato chips. We spot characters in the clouds. And, yes, we imagine that cars have faces. There’s a word for this weird desire to find significance where there really isn’t any: pareidolia.

A European research firm released some highlights from its continuing study on how these perceived faces affect a vehicle’s desirability. The consensus: The angrier the car, the more we want it.

Now EFS Consulting Vienna is drilling deeper into the phenomenon to see if these “faces” are universal and if automakers can take advantage of them to make more attractive automobiles.

The firm sat down 20 men and 20 women and asked them to evaluate 38 vehicles. All the models were passenger cars from the past few years – they left out SUVs, fearing that their size and gas-guzzling reputation would affect the scores.

“Study participants assessed cars based on a system known as geometric morphometrics (GM), which allowed the men and women to rate certain traits on a sliding scale (such as ‘infancy’ to ‘adulthood’),” reports LiveScience. “The traits represented maturity, sex, attitudes, emotions, and personality — all things that people infer from human faces at a single glance. After rating car traits, participants then answered the question of whether they saw a human face, animal face or no face at all on the cars. They drew facial features such as eyes, nose and mouth on the car images whenever they did see faces.”

In the final round, the researchers asked how much the participants liked the cars. The big winners were vehicles with faces that portrayed “power.” This mostly meant “lower or wider” cars with ‘slit-like or angled headlights’.

Remember Brandon wondered about being judged by others? We know we judge people – among other things – by the cars that they drive. Can we also say that how our cars ‘look’ help us to understand the drivers on a personal level? I do think so. And even if it all seems very Freudian , it still makes sense, does it not?

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