Humans are wired to look for intentionality

We are wired to pay attention to things that move because things that move are more likely to harm us. We need to figure out whether they intend to and we produce narratives to help us make sense of our experience.

Josh Tenenbaum, a professor of Computational Cognitive Science at MIT, describes a classic experiment conducted by Heider and Simmel in 1944 as “the most important two minutes in cognitive science.” The experiment consisted of animations with three simple shapes—a large triangle, a small triangle, and a circle. The shapes move around the plane and variously move in and out of a box. It’s worth watching this for yourself on Youtube before reading on.

How would you describe the scene you’ve just witnessed? Would you describe it along the lines of “a big triangle moves back and forth while a small triangle and a small circle move around each other”? Or would you describe it as the original participants in 1944 did, in a narrative of a romantic relationship. They described events and causal interactions with collisions and pushing and shoving. The shapes had goals. They wanted to help or hurt and to escape. The shapes had relationships; both friends and enemies. They felt emotions of fear, anger, and relief. The shapes made moral judgements: the smaller shapes were described as nice or good while the large triangle was mean and bullying.

This landmark study demonstrates how interwoven our experience of reality is. We can’t only think of physical objects, movement, and constraints. Our thinking is pervaded by emotion, story, morality, and relationships. We are left with the impression that the world around us is rich with detail and intentionality.

Great Human Strength: We are wired to understand others’ intentions, which is key to our success as a social species.

Great Human Weakness: We construct complex narratives and attribute intent or causality when there is none.

Machine Opportunity: Designs which help us understand others’ intent.

Machine Threat: Designs which disguise or misrepresent intent. Designs which manipulate us to see intent when there is none. Designs with the wrong intent.