Article | Psychological Science

The Tipping Point of Animacy: How, When, and Where We Perceive Life in a Face

by Christine E. Looser and Thalia Wheatley


Faces capture humans' attention; yet, beyond aesthetic appreciation, it is presumably not the face itself that interests people but the mind behind it. Minds think, feel, and act in ways that have direct consequences for well-being, but despite their importance, how minds are perceived in faces is not well understood. We investigated this mechanism by presenting participants with morphed images created from animate (human) and inanimate (mannequin) faces. Life and mind were perceived to "appear" at a consistent location on the morph continuum, close to the human endpoint. This location constituted a categorical boundary, as evidenced by increased sensitivity to differences in image pairs that straddled this tipping point. Additionally, the impression of life was gleaned from the eyes more than from other facial features. These results suggest that human beings are highly attuned to specific facial cues, carried largely in the eyes, that gate the categorical perception of life.

Keywords: social psychology; mind perception; face perception; Identity; Cognition and Thinking;


Looser, Christine E., and Thalia Wheatley. "The Tipping Point of Animacy: How, When, and Where We Perceive Life in a Face." Psychological Science 21, no. 12 (December 2010).