The Uncanny Valley: What Robot Theory Tells Us About Mitt Romney

The GOP front-runner looks just enough like the perfect picture of an American president to make us uncomfortable.

Mitt Romney is the storybook presidential candidate. He's successful, good-looking and a family man, to boot. Yet one of this political season's enduring puzzles has been the former governor's consistent inability to bond with voters. It's been suggested that Romney's robotic persona may be to blame -- and perhaps the analogy isn't far off. Much as people are repulsed and disturbed by automatons that mimic humans closely but imperfectly, Romney inexplicably turns voters off despite looking like the textbook image of an American president. Roboticists call this unsettling effect "the uncanny valley" -- and Romney is stuck deep at the bottom of it.

If the past year's media coverage of Romney tells us anything, it's that the electorate is attempting to reconcile conflicting impressions of the man. Romney is defined by two, now-familiar narratives. One focuses on the candidate's naturally presidential demeanor. The other examines his decidedly unnatural comportment in the presence of ordinary people. For the most part, Team Romney has successfully ignored the tension arising from these contradictory signals. But the style problem is one they'll have to face sooner or later -- particularly if Romney wins the GOP nomination, as he trails Obama on likeability and in fact tends to become less liked the more exposure he gets.

How a candidate of Romney's pedigree could cut such an unsympathetic figure has become a minor obsession in the media. Explanations range from his association with the corporate one percent to his willingness to contradict himself on key issues. All these are true, but the underlying dynamic governing our reaction to his controversial affiliations and positions is a completely natural psychological response to competing stimuli -- one that's best summed up with a technological metaphor.

In robotics, researchers have observed that as an object acquires human-like properties, people respond to the object with more positive feelings. The less anthropomorphized an object, the less empathy. What's cognitively demanding about this formulation is that engineers are beginning to create robots that approximate human behavior so closely that the mind interprets the robot in human terms even if the machine lacks distinguishing anthropomorphic features, like a face. The result is an unsettling feeling that borders on anxiety or revulsion. When a robot inspires such emotions, it's said to have fallen into the uncanny valley of a conceptual graph that charts fluctuations in our empathetic capacity. The graph in question looks something like this:

uncannyvalley.jpg

On one end of the graph, objects that look nothing like humans elicit a minimum of empathy. On the other end are real humans, with whom we identify most. In between are things that resemble humans to some degree and earn some measure of recognition for it. In the case of objects falling into the uncanny valley, the recognition can actually be negative. They recall humanity, inviting us to empathize as we might with a real human, but imperfections in the illusion create a kind of dissonance that makes us uncomfortable.

Romney's problem is that he occupies a kind of uncanny valley for politicians. Just as people who interact with lifelike robots often develop a strange feeling due to something they can't quite name, something about Romney leaves voters unsettled.

As with the robotic version of the uncanny valley, the closer Romney gets to becoming real to a voter, the more his likeability declines. On television and at a distance, the former governor radiates presidential qualities from every patrician pore. The effect is almost involuntary, considering the substantial advantages Romney enjoys from appearance alone. But in person, his polished persona gives way to what appears a surprisingly forced and inauthentic character. What's disturbing about episodes like those detailed in this story isn't that they happen -- it's that they're inexplicably happening to a man who should, by the looks of him, navigate the political waters with ease.

Most politicians tend to be ordinary-looking people who spend their time convincing voters they're office-quality material. Romney is rushing the other way: he's the politician from central casting who is stumbling through an audition for a role of regular human. Not that other candidates don't make mistakes -- they do, all the time -- but in Romney's case awkward moments stand out like neon road signs precisely because we expect him to make the jump from TV to reality as effortlessly and convincingly as his polished appearance would imply.

Romney's task now is to work his way out of the uncanny valley toward a more compelling style of humanity. But every day he lingers in it, the hill grows steeper.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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