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Heider-Simmel: Is there a story?

Back in the 1940s, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel made  a simple animated film. Heider and Simmel used it in an experiment: They asked people to watch the film and describe what they saw happening.

Try it out yourself.

Here’s the Heider-Simmel film.

What Heider and Simmel discovered is that many people who watched this abstract film of simple shapes roaming around were quick to see a story unfold. In those simple shapes, viewers often saw characters with emotions, motivations, and purpose.

Our impulse to tell stories is one of the questions we’re investigating in our radio hour on story.


The film still makes people see stories

More recently, the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC showed the Heider-Simmel film to seven comedians and asked them to narrate the action. The result is worth watching.


Help a computer tell a story

Imposing a story on the Heider-Simmel film seems to come easy to humans. But try getting a computer to do it.

“The truth is, it’s super, super hard for computers,” Andrew Gordon, a computer scientist  at USC, told us. (You can hear more from Gordon in our radio hour on story.)

Gordon wants to get computers to be able to tell stories like people do. And you can help! Gordon created an online game that allows you to animate your own Heider-Simmel-like movie, and to come up with narrations for other people’s Heider-Simmel movie creations. Gordon uses the data from these apps to refine his algorithms.

Heider-Simmel Interactive Theater


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  1. Here’s a long list of “Really Deep Questions” that could all be seen as branching off from the observation that “archetypes” tend to be both real roles in life and nature as well as deeply symbolic images. That’s what the “triangles” game touches on too.

    For example, the “home as center” and its “connections as links” are both the real organizing principles of all of nature, and organizing principles of early nature religions, as the archetypal gods “Hestia & Hermes”.

    What makes archetypes “deep” is how these “timeless forms of nature & relationships” (as physical things) and as corresponding “timeless meanings for thought”, are actually somewhat able to learn from each other, as if parallel organisms in mirror ecologies.


  2. Amazingly revealing program. Many thanks for producing the subjects on human perception that help us overcome the misuse of media in order to manipulate the public opinion and other techniques to promote the lies and cover-up the bullies of all sorts and kinds. Projection as the capacity of the human mind that is fascinating, indeed.

  3. My story is that there is something uncensored in the video. Probably an adult content or extreme violence or some classified material or conspiracy. When I click on a triangle to play the video I see only “This video is private”. Okay, I won’t tell anything to anyone…

  4. when I tried to pull up the heider-simmel animation, the message I got was “this video is private.” when I tried to pull it up on youtube, said I needed permission to watch it. finally found it on vimeo, but anyone know what gives?

  5. The video seems designed to elicit a negative emotional response from the viewer. The only “lightness” I detected was the interaction between sphere and small triangle, which initially seemed to depict humor. The small shapes seemed to me to have a much more significant capacity for original thought, while the large triangle appeared “stuck” in reactive behavior, culminating in destructive, “angry” action.

  6. All those that see a story are correct. There is no wrong answer, you are normal, your creativity shows. If you do not see emotions in the icons, you would be diagnosed as probably autistic.

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  8. Clearly there is a simulation of sorts that urges teh mind to seek connections and find explanations for what is happening. In my case, I humanised teh triangles and the circle so it would become easier to tell a story

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