Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mitt Romney and the uncanny valley

[Updated for greater clarity]
I finally figured out why I don't like Mitt Romney. It was something Andrew said that pointed me in the right direction. Writing about "heroes," he said:
...realistic people do have flaws. A person without at least some flaws hits that huge dip in the uncanny valley…we just know the person is close to being legitimate, but the one thing that he doesn’t get right sticks out.

I've certainly never thought of Mitt Romney as a hero (whatever that is), nor as a person without flaws. Far from it. But I've always felt that there's something "off" about the man, at least in his public persona. And thanks to Andrew, I've finally figured out why Romney creeps me out. To me, he's firmly ensconced in the "uncanny valley."

What is the uncanny valley? According to the font of all knowledge,

The uncanny valley hypothesis holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The "valley" in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's lifelikeness.

The graph looks like this:

In other words, people like dolls and robots and so on that look a little human, but not too human. When something looks very human but not fully human, it becomes creepy instead of endearing.

Which brings us to Romney. With his constant pandering, his willingness to say anything and claim it's a heartfelt belief in order to get elected, emphasized by his too-perfect hair, his too-perfect teeth, and the wooden stiffness of his persona, Romney comes across like a robot, a facsimile of a real person, an almost-human simulacrum. He is so plastic, so fake, so unreal, that he repulses me. He slips into the uncanny valley.

If an entity looks sufficiently nonhuman, its human characteristics will be noticeable, generating empathy. However, if the entity looks almost human, it will elicit our model of a human other and its detailed normative expectations. The nonhuman characteristics will be noticeable, giving the human viewer a sense of strangeness. In other words, a robot stuck inside the uncanny valley is no longer being judged by the standards of a robot doing a passable job at pretending to be human, but is instead being judged by the standards of a human doing a terrible job at acting like a normal person.

That's Mitt Romney in a nutshell. The "one thing he doesn't get right" is being human. He comes across like a robot trying to act like a normal human being and doing a bad job of it. And it gives me the creeps.


  1. I think Romney's kinda endearing because he's not quite...right...in a creepy way. (The question is...is he human enough to trigger uncanny valley or is he sufficiently nonhuman that we look at his human characteristics with empathy? Perhaps it is the latter, not the former)

    Would I vote for him? uhhhh....can't say I would.

  2. I think the "uncanny valley" tends to be a very individualized phenomenon. One person's "uncanny" is another person's "cute." Or at least, another person's "meh." But Romney is very uncanny to me.


What do you think?