One of the mostly forgotten chestnuts of the newspaper racket was the photograph, always on the first snowy day of the year, of some frozen formation that resembled a human face. After seeing those pictures year after year, it was hard to shake the suspicion that news photographers were sculpting on the fly, and under deadline.
But in this Covid-19 spring, with people confined in their homes and neighborhoods, the inanimate faces are back in irrepressible number. These visages peer outward with smiles or frowns, from standpipes and parking lots, rock piles and garbage — found art as a witness to history and, in this circumstance, a reflection of shared human instinct.
In a variety of experiments, social psychologists have found that when people are longing to socialize, they are more likely than usual to perceive humanlike traits in inanimate objects. The fridge is clearing its throat, impatiently; the yellow stain on the ceiling appears inflamed, hostile. The lava lamp, thank goodness, seems to glow with approval.
“As the psychologist William James wrote long ago, ‘My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing,’” said Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavior science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “When people are seeking social contact with other people, we would expect them to be thinking about other people and, hence, more likely to see signs of other people even where they might not exist, such as in everyday objects or scenes.”
After a month or more of social distancing, people may well be seeing more phantom faces than usual staring out from potholes, peeling tree bark and collapsed cakes, Dr. Epley said: “Even New Yorkers need social contact in a big way now.”