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Did You See the Way That Car Looked at Me?

Photo by Jase Mueller/Flickr

Have you ever felt particularly menaced (or amused) by an approaching car as you crossed in a crosswalk, or as you looked up to see it in the rear-view mirror of your own car? Did you ever think it might be because it felt, strangely, as if an angry (or happy) face was looking at you? Would this alter the way you behaved toward the vehicle?

In a new paper by Sonja Windhager, et al., “Face to Face: The Perception of Automotive Design,” published in the latest issue of Human Nature, the authors, working from the idea that evolution has primed us to be extremely sensitive to the human face (drawing key inferences after a mere 100 ms), wonder if we might not draw similar information from inanimate objects — like cars — that just happen to have seemingly facial features.

For the experiment, they had a group of subjects look at a variety of car models. They were first asked to identify any human features they perceived in the car; more than 60% saw faces in 70% of the cars presented (“they marked eyes in 75.2%, a mouth in 62.6%, a nose in 54.3%, and ears in 38.1% of the cases. Generally, the headlights were marked as eyes. The nose tended to be the grille or the emblem; the additional air intake slots, the mouth.”)

The researchers then “asked people to report the characteristics, emotions, personality traits, and attitudes that they ascribed to car fronts and then used geometric morphometrics to calculate the corresponding shape information.”

They found “that people liked cars most which had a wide stance, a narrow windshield, and/or widely spaced, narrow headlights. 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.”

Why? One reason, the authors suggested, might be that those cars look like powerful people: “The pronounced lower car body relative to the windshield area further resembles the prominent chin reported for dominant-looking people.” Given that much of car design is informed more by aesthetics than function, one suspects designers are playing into these sorts of ideas.

The authors go on to say that they’re not sure whether people buy cars with these characteristics because they really like them, or because a “mature, dominant, masculine, arrogant, and angry impression might therefore be desirable in the daily battles on the roads (crowded intersections, traffic jams).” And further: “Do we judge the car the way we do because of our (maybe stereotyped) impression of its owner, or did the owner decide to buy this car because it communicates the desired characteristics?”

This kind of work has all sorts of interesting implications for traffic. Are we more likely to yield to a powerful looking car, falling under the spell of its influence? Or does the angry vibe get our own blood boiling, and make us more combative? Would we all behave better if our cars looked friendlier? Is there any information we can draw from the rear-ends of cars, given that we spend just as much time looking at those? Do we feel differently towards motorcycles or cyclists because of their cyclopean eye?

What fascinated me the most, given the discussion of the importance of eye contact in Traffic was a subsequent set of eye-tracking studies the authors conducted. Even when asked to look at other features of the fronts of cars, people seemed first drawn to the headlights — i.e., the “eyes,” much in the same way humans do when scanning another human face.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 at 3:54 pm and is filed under Cars, Traffic Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Did You See the Way That Car Looked at Me?”

  1. Anibal Says:

    Nice post!
    we project ourselves into our stuff (and we see us in them)
    Designers know the smiliar face like appearence of the front part in cars, and exploit this fact to make inanimate things more “organic” to our psychology.

  2. Sharon Says:

    I remember a car that was the spitting image of my pediatrician when I was little: round eyes, high forehead, big smile. I think it was a Rambler.

  3. Phil Patton Says:

    The issue in car design of the face is an important one. Cars without grilles, which are today mostly decorative, seem to lack mouths and therefore voice. But the eye/headlights thing is more complicated. The key to making the cars in the film Cars work, according to John Lasseter of Pixar was shifting the eyes from headlights, the traditional arrangement in cartoon and kid’s books, to the windshield.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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