The Social Thinker

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Are Your Tech Gadgets Out To Get You?

Why do we anthropomorphize our tech gadgets?

Ever have one of those days when the technological world seems to be out to get you? Maybe your computer is refusing to follow your commands and you feel compelled to negotiate with it, first by coaxing it into submission, and then, when it still refuses to cooperate, by cursing at it. Or maybe you feel like you are being outsmarted by your Smartphone. Or that your Ipod has developed its own sense of self-its own "I"-and now only plays the songs it likes.

Well, the good news is that you are not alone. Most people have at some point felt that their technological gadgets have a mind or their own. In one survey, 79% of people admitted to verbally scolding their computer when it failed to comply with their request and 73% admitted to cursing at it.

Our tendency to attribute human-like characteristics to non-human entities is called anthropomorphism. This inclination to imbue non-living things with human qualities is not a modern phenomenon-references for this phenomena date back as far as the 6th century BC when Xenophanes first coined the term. And this penchant to anthropomorphize extends well beyond technological agents; people have been shown to anthropomorphize everything from their pets to weather patterns and celestial bodies.

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Yet more and more, our modern world seems to be full of references that our gadgets may be sentient beings. Movies such as 2001: Space Odyssey, Terminator, Tron and The Matrix warn of the day when our technology decides to rebel against us. The Pixar movie Wall-E instead captured our hearts with two robots that were full of personality despite the fact that they didn't speak.

Advertisers aware of our tendency to anthropomorphize have attempted to turn this quirk into cash. One of the best examples of this marketing approach are the recent Apple ads that try to convince us that Mac computers are more fun and free thinking than PCs. But computers aren't the only ones getting the "human treatment."

Several car companies have jumped on the anthropomorphizing bandwagon. Volkswagen recently ran a series of ads where a VW Beetle interviews famous celebrities and Nissan even went so far as to create a concept car that comes fully equipped with a smile!

So do such marketing appeals work? Recent research by Aggarwal and McGill, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests it does. They found that people tended to evaluate products more positively when

exposed to an ad that anthropomorphized the product.

So why do we feel a need to project our own human agency and emotions onto our tech gadgets? Some suggest that this tendency is driven by our need for social connection. If we can't surround ourselves with other people who love and accept us, then we may seek out objects and animals as "stand ins," thereby fulfilling our affiliation need in an alternative way. Consistent with this assertion, people who are chronically lonely do exhibit a greater propensity to anthropomorphize their pets and technological gadgets.

But recent research suggests another potential cause-effectance motivation. Effectance motivation refers to the basic human need to understand, predict, and control the world around us. Few things are more scary or stressful than the feeling that your world is spinning out of control; that you are no longer able to predict what is going to happen in your life. In these situations, our effectance motivation becomes activated, and we seek out situations or stimuli that help us restore our sense of control.

One strategy that we may use to restore order is anthropomorphism.

In a series of experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Adam Waytz and colleagues explored this possibility. Specifically, they showed that people are more likely to anthropomorphize technical gadgets when their effectance motivation is activated.

For instance, in one study, they found that people were more likely to anthropomorphize unpredictable gadgets, because their unpredictable nature threatens our sense of control. This explains why we are more likely to curse at our computer when it doesn't behave, but less likely to praise it when it does. We expect our computers to comply with our requests, and when they don't, we feel we have less control over our lives.

In another study, these researchers experimentally manipulated participants' need for control to see if this would increase anthropomorphizing tendencies. Specifically, participants watched a video of a robot. Half were instructed to predict what the robot would do next and were paid for every correct answer they provided. The other half were not given these instructions. As expected, those who were paid for their ability to predict the robot's behavior-that is, those who were higher in effectance motivation-were more likely to describe the robot as having its own intentions, desires and conscious thought.

So what can we learn from this research? Importantly, it suggests that our tendency to see human qualities in inanimate objects is not just a random quirk-it serves a specific purpose. We perceive that our gadgets have personality or consciousness because it helps us feel that our environment is predictable and controllable.

This research also suggests that anthropomorphism is more likely to occur when we are feeling like our lives are spinning out of control, so in a way, it is a symptom that can help us diagnose how much effectance motivation we truly feel we have. When you have one of those days when all your gadgets seem to be conspiring against you, it might be a good idea to take a step back and ask yourself what aspects of your life are feeling out of control.

And with that piece of advice, I am going to wrap up this blog before my cranky computer acts up again and decides to cut me off compl....

Suggested Readings:
Aggarwal, P., & McGill, A. L. (2007). Is that car smiling at me? Schema congruity as a basis for evaluating anthropomorphized products. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 468-479.

Waytz, A., Morewedge, C. K., Epley, N., Monteleone, G., Gao, J., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Making sense by making sentient: Effectance motivation increases anthropomorphism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 410-435.

 

Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., is a professor of social psychology at Oklahoma State University.

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