Zoom Fatigue and the Uncanny Valley

Video chat has been a concept for years. I grew up watching the Jetsons and Star Trek. I remember reading about video phones in 1990s magazines, and my phone has had the capability for years. But wasn’t until 2020 that I started using it on a regular basis. Why did it take a pandemic for it to become so commonplace? It’s because video chat frankly sucks. It’s a compromise between calling someone on the phone and visiting them in person, and like most compromises, it sacrifices too much. Zoom fatigue is real phenomenon, but why is Zoom so fatiguing in the first place? I think it has to do with the Uncanny Valley.

The Uncanny Valley

Take a series of drawings of faces, and rank them on a scale of abstract to realistic. On one end, a simple smiley or stick figure; on the other end, a photorealistic sketch. Then have people rate each drawing or how it makes them feel. The simple images will communicate simple emotions, like an emoji. The complex images will look like a photo you could hang on your wall or post on your social media profile. But in the middle, the faces will come off as “creepy.” There’s simply something “not right” about them. It’s why bad CGI looks so bad. If it’s good enough to look real, you can’t tell it’s CGI, and if it’s abstract, it just looks cartoony. Take any Pixar movie as an example. Scenery and (wild) animals may look realistic, but humans and animal characters are cartoony. This is a deliberate choice to keep the movie from looking creepy, like “The Polar Express.”

Subtle Signals

Our brains are really, really good at analyzing faces. It’s one of our most important avenues of communication. We’re also pretty good at interpreting body language in general, even if we don’t consciously realize it. When you are talking to someone in person, you communicate with not just your words, not just your overt gestures like smiles and nods, but with a whole array of subtle signals. When you use a more abstract form of communication, like text message, you have to be more careful in your wording and maybe even use emoji. On the phone, you have to listen to tone. In terms of the Uncanny Valley, in-person conversations and text messages fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, with phone conversations on the more abstract side of the continuum.

Our Brains Aren’t Fooled

So why is video chat so emotionally draining? It’s because something is “off.” Looking at our friends, colleagues and loved ones on a computer screen, our rational minds take that visual information and imagine that we’re in the same room. But we don’t get the body language. We don’t get the eye contact. People are usually looking at the eyes on screen and not the camera lens, so it appears like we’re all looking down. In a meeting setting, the faces are all looking at us head on, like some sort of demented Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares. When casually chatting, the software picks out the loudest voice and mutes everything else. It can sometimes be hard to get a word in edgewise, even if no one is your group is a blowhard. In other words, our brains aren’t fooled.

The Uncanny Virus

One of the things that has made the Covid-19 pandemic so anxiety-inducing is the disconnect between the verbal and non-verbal sides of our brains. The verbal side, often erroneously called the “left brain” is calm, calculating and rational, whereas the nonverbal “right brain” side is emotional, quick to react, and tied much more closely with our physical bodies. With something like a virus, we know rationally that something is “off,” but we can’t quite place it. For health care workers on the front lines, this pandemic is very real, but for many people, the world seems much the same. Only now people are wearing masks and there are large sheets of plexiglass in front of cashiers. Everything feels just a bit “wrong,” and I think that’s one of the reasons people balk at wearing masks, despite their proven effectiveness in curbing the spread of disease.

Keeping Us Safe

Going back to the Uncanny Valley, it’s the nonverbal emotional side of our brain that reacts to a not-quite-a-face. The Uncanny Valley exists to keep us safe. It alerts us that something is wrong. Dead bodies are uncanny, as are the very sick. Human ancestors that reacted to the dead and dying with caution were less likely to get sick themselves, and thus more likely to pass on their genes. Back in hunter-gatherer times, even people from other tribes might appear a bit off, and it was the caution we had to external threats that kept us alive. This adaptation also leads to racism and xenophobia, but it evolved for a reason, even if that reason no longer works in the modern world.

Combating Zoom Fatigue

When we’re on a video call, our brains have to do extra work to combat the Uncanny Valley effect. Our rational brains say things are fine, while our irrational brains aren’t quite so certain. This is the ultimate cause of Zoom fatigue. But not all calls are the same in this regard. Calls with close friends or family are often less tiring than work meetings. At least that’s been my experience. I’ve also found that it helps meeting with someone in a place that I’ve been physically. For me, if I’ve been in the same room as someone before, I can better imagine my surroundings, and my brain is less exhausted at the end. Familiarity helps a lot with the Uncanny Valley effect. I mentioned “The Polar Express” earlier. Despite its wonky animation style, a lot of people love that movie. Once you’re familiar with something, it doesn’t seem quite so uncanny.

What is your experience with Zoom fatigue? Have you experienced the Uncanny Valley effect? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs regularly at http://steve-lovelace.com.

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2 Responses

  1. Mel says:

    I’d heard about right vs left brain in terms of creativity, but interesting to think of it in terms of emotion

  1. January 29, 2022

    […] of a global pandemic. That means that months seemingly go by in quarantine, while days of boring Zoom meetings bring life to a standstill. Again, I’m not the first person to make this observation, nor will I […]

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