The Uncanny Phenomenon

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March 27, 2017 by dicletasman

adult-clown-costume.jpgThe “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” (Freud, 1919, p. 220).

The word “uncanny” derives from the word “canny” which originally means “knowing” (etymonline, 2017). “Uncanny” used as the English translation of German word “unheimlich” by Freud. Unheimlich, the opposite of “heimlich” which means “familiar,” “native,” “belonging to the home”, literally means “unhomely”. Therefore, he comes to a decision that what is “uncanny” is frightening exactly because it is not known and familiar (Freud, 1919).

Freud’s opinions about this phenomenon influenced many theorists from different domains throughout history. To give an example, Japanese roboticist Mori proposed the “uncanny valley hypothesis”. This hypothesis posits that:

As a robot increasingly resembles a person, its familiarity increases until a point at which it abruptly drops to a negative value and elicits strong repulsion; then, as the robot’s resemblance to a person continues to increase, its familiarity increases again and eventually reaches the level of a person (cited in Wang, Lilienfeld, & Rochat, 2015, p. 393).


The Uncanny Valley

Although this hypothesis gained some support from various controlled studies, its existence is still debatable. In order to explain uncanny phenomenon, other researchers’ hypotheses can be divided into two main categories: One category considers the uncanny phenomenon as an automatic, stimulus-driven, specialized processing which takes place early in perception, the other category considers the phenomenon as a wider and more general range of cognitive processing which takes place later (Wang et al., 2015).


Although these hypotheses provide possible explanations to the uncanny phenomenon from different perspectives, they gained mixed support from controlled experiments. Therefore, Wong et al. (2015) suggested that the uncanny feeling cannot be explained just with the notion that attributing humanlike characteristics (e.g., humans’ subjective experience) to non-human entities. By proposing “The Dehumanization Hypothesis”, they suggested that two cognitive processes – anthropomorphism (“attributing human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human beings”) and dehumanization (“perceiving a person or group as lacking humanness—the attributes that define what it is to be human”) – may be responsible for the uncanny phenomenon. That is to say, perceiving an anthropomorphized human replica as lacking humanness, which is the process of dehumanization, might explain the uncanny phenomenon. Further researches are needed to understand the uncanny phenomenon (Wang et al., 2015).


Freud, S. (1919). The ‘Uncanny’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, 17, 217-256.

Un-canny. (n.d.) In online etymology dictionary. Retrieved from

Wang, S., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Rochat, P. (2015). The Uncanny Valley: Existence and Explanations. Review of General Psychology, 19(4), 393–407.

Author Info: Dicle Rojda Tasman, MA Cand., Experimental Social Psychology Program (Baskent Un., Ankara) | email: dicletasman [AT] hotmail[.]com

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