An interesting piece of work from Gao et al. showing how the perception of animacy influences our interactive behavior.
Imagine a pack of predators stalking their prey. The predators may not always move directly toward their target (e.g., when circling around it), but they may be consistently facing toward it. The human visual system appears to be extremely sensitive to such situations, even in displays involving simple shapes. We demonstrate this by introducing the wolfpack effect, which is found when several randomly moving, oriented shapes (darts, or discs with “eyes”) consistently point toward a moving disc. Despite the randomness of the shapes’ movement, they seem to interact with the disc—as if they are collectively pursuing it. This impairs performance in interactive tasks (including detection of actual pursuit), and observers selectively avoid such shapes when moving a disc through the display themselves. These and other results reveal that the wolfpack effect is a novel “social” cue to perceived animacy. And, whereas previous work has focused on the causes of perceived animacy, these results demonstrate its effects, showing how it irresistibly and implicitly shapes visual performance and interactive behavior.
Sample display (a) and manipulations (b–e) from the first experiment. The task was to detect whether one shape (the wolf) was chasing another (the sheep). Arrows indicate motion and were not present in the displays. In the wolfpack condition (a, b), all darts stayed oriented toward the task-irrelevant green square, regardless of their motion directions. This condition generated the wolfpack effect. In the perpendicular condition (c), each dart was always oriented orthogonally to the square. In the match condition (d), each dart was always oriented in the direction in which it was moving at that moment. And in the disc condition (e), the objects had no visible orientation.