Friday, October 03, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: Do people see faces in cars?

Once upon a time (1955), when I was five years old, I woke up in a fright:

A car had been chasing me down the sidewalk.

No driver, just the car - a metal monster, bug-eyed with rage and shouting through its grille:

You know you are not supposed to play on the road. But you played on the road!

Now I have the right to chase you down the sidewalk!
Of course, I woke up just before the car caught up with me ...

The peculiarly frightening thing was that the car's position appeared fair to me.

I had no one to blame but myself for my chrome-plated judgment day.

I recalled that dream when I read "Human Or Animal Faces Associated With At Least 90 Percent Of Cars By One-third Of Population", which tells us (ScienceDaily, September 24, 2008):

One-third of the subjects associated a human or animal face with at least 90 percent of the cars. All subjects marked eyes (headlights), a mouth (air intake/grille), and a nose in more than 50 percent of the cars. Overall, people agreed which type of car possesses certain traits. The authors found that people liked cars most which had a wide stance, a narrow windshield, and/or widely spaced, narrow headlights.
according to Truls Thorstensen (EFS Consulting Vienna), Karl Grammer (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Urban Ethology) and other researchers at the University of Vienna.

ScienceDaily also advises,

Throughout evolution, humans have developed an ability to collect information on people's sex, age, emotions, and intentions by looking at their faces. The authors suggest that this ability is probably widely used on other living beings and maybe even on inanimate objects, such as cars.
Well, it won't be the auto makers fault if it isn't. Auto makers around the world have spent billions creating personalities for cars.

Think of Uncle Yaris, for example (pictured above). For weeks, I couldn't even figure out from the ads that Yaris was actually a car, not a star. (That marketing strategy was panned in the industry, but it shows you how much auto makers assume people associate their products with personality types). And remember Herbie the Love Bug, anyone? For that matter, some like the famous Jaguar hood ornament better than the drive train underneath it.

This story illustrates a common tendency of evolutionary psychology: Its proponents claim that it sheds light on things on which it sheds no light. For example, the fact that humans can pick out the outlines of a face in an inanimate object is prettty well documented. But no one knows for sure when, where, how, or why we first started doing this. It may not even be possible to find that out. And it wouldn't make a whole lot of difference anyway because through the ages people like the auto makers have simply acted as if it were true. One interesting finding:

The better the subjects liked a car, the more it bore shape characteristics corresponding to high values of what the authors termed "power", indicating that both men and women like mature, dominant, masculine, arrogant, angry-looking cars.
Well, I can't say I liked the "mature, dominant, masculine, arrogant, angry-looking car" of my dream. But it did dissuade me from using the road as a playground again.

(Note: At a conscious level, at five years old, I knew perfectly well that cars require drivers in order to move. But I could not think in an abstract way. The metal monster was, of course, my own conscience reproaching me in imagery rather than abstraction.)

See also:

Evolutionary psychology: Misunderstanding superstition

Evolutionary psychology: Why evolutionary explanations of religion don't work

Mind: Current science less and less precise as it approaches the mind?

Evolutionary psychology: British physicist targets theory-of-the-month on "how religion got started"

Evolutionary psychology: Women prefer men with stubble? Oh, no wait - beards - but we can explain that too ...

Evolutionary psychology: The selfish gene in the art world

Evolutionary psychology: Key concept of "memes" trashed as "one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades"

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