The ‘Autokinetic effect’ is a phenomenon based on visual perception and Optical illusion. Visual perception is one’s ability to analyze the surrounding environment using the source of light in the visible part of the spectrum that is reflected by the objects in the environment. The Autokinetic effect is a phenomenon where a stable and small point of light in an all-around dark environment appears to move. Sometimes, this effect is also being referred to as ‘Autokinesis’.


This effect was for the first time recorded by a Russian officer keeping a watch and he observed an illusion of the movement of a star near the horizon. It was considered occurring because motion view is always relative to some point of reference, and where there is darkness or in an environment which is featureless there is a single point that we can consider as a point of reference. So, in such cases, the position of the single point is usually undefined.

The direction of the movements of the lines or points does not appear to be in relation with the involuntary movements that our eyes make. Many researchers through various researches have shown that the autokinesis effect occurs when no eye movements are recorded or seen. The width or the extent of the movements is also not defined.


Individual observers usually set their own strings of reference to judge the amplitude and the direction of movement. Because of the reason that this phenomenon is not stable, it has been used to show the effects regarding social influence or suggestion on any kind of judgments. We can consider that the decisions of a person may affect and change the perception of another person as well, for example, if one person says that the light is moving fast and just after that.

Discovery of the various influence and some suggestions on the autokinetic effect is often credited to Sherif in the year 1935, but it was said to be recorded by Adams in the year 1912. Alexander von Humboldt a geographer, a naturalist and also an observer, observed the phenomenon in 1799 while he was looking at stars with the naked eye, there was some kind of movement that he saw but he thought it was a real movement of the stars. He gave this movement a term “Sternschwanken”, that meant “swinging stars”. This was believing only till the year 1857 since after that G. Schweitzer in 1957 who was a German psychologist, found out that it was a subjective phenomenon.


The effect is said to produce an illusion that affects the pilots who fly during the night. It is particularly found dangerous for pilots flying in formation or rejoining a refueling tanker at night. Preventing this has become a necessary need, many measures can be taken to prevent or overcome this phenomenon like prolonged gazing on one single light source should be avoided and the gaze should be shifted frequently to avoid this fixation on one light source.

In case a pilot needs to view the target from far, then he should make sure that he looks at the target with reference to a stationary point or any structure around the target to avoid this effect.  to avoid or eliminate the illusion of frequent body movements like the movement of head hands legs should be made. Frequent monitoring of the flight instruments should be made in the case to prevent or solve any perceptual issue.


Even the night fighter and night bombing crews during the Second World War reported that they saw mysterious aerial phenomena, which later came to be known that they might have been caused by autokinesis or any kind of a similar effect. When you see anything in the daytime, then you can use the other points or structures for reference during the day, and hence the chances of the autokinetic effect is lowered. In just the same way, at the night time when you look through a tube at a distant star, we will see one point of light, and our brain will not be able to tell and differentiate what is moving; the light or the person’s eye. These are great conditions under which we can be fooled by our perceptual system because of the autokinetic effect.


Muzafer Sherif, a renowned person in this field made the use of the autokinetic effect in his studies in the year 1936 based on the development of the social norms. Norms are kind of the rules that provide individuals with frames of reference that build up their thoughts, emotions, and actions in any kind of social situation. Sherif conducted this experiment and examined this process by asking some men seated in a completely dark room to state loudly about their estimates from the distance on a tiny dot of light that moved. Individuals who made some judgments alone, they came to fix their estimates under a specific range, which usually varied from one to ten inches.

It was seen that when people were making some decisions, their decisions slightly changed and converged until a specific decision was reached. The men eventually in the end accepted a socially shared estimate in place of their own specific decisions that they gave at the first place. Sherif thus capitalized on the natural ambiguity of the autokinetic effect with the help of the above example and thus he succeeded in creating a social norm in an experimental setting itself.


Thus, we can conclude that the autokinetic effect is an optical illusion that occurs when an observer is looking at a stationary point (as small as a pin or large) of light in a completely dark environment and he believes that the light moves from its fixed position. This auto-kinetic is caused, by the unnoticeable movements of the eye (also called saccades). Ordinarily, our sight system can compensate for the naturally occurring motions, but when there is only a single light visible with no other point of reference, then the light appears to move in an unpredictable direction and at different speeds.

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