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Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to non-human entities, including animals. Some people are more inclined to anthropomorphize than others, but it is a common way of perceiving and interacting with the world.

What Is Anthropomorphism?

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Anthropomorphism, in which someone “sees” human-like attributes in a non-human, is often associated with the bonds between humans and their beloved pets or possessions or the ways they interpret animal behavior. People can also anthropomorphize in imagining that unseen beings (such as gods) possess human features.

Perceiving the presence of human qualities in other entities can be misleading when such qualities are absent. But anthropomorphism may not always be totally off-base. While a pet rock is never happy to see its owner, some animals may actually experience something like the emotional states that people perceive in them.

What are some examples of anthropomorphism?

When a child earnestly talks to a dog or a teddy bear and expects to be understood, they are anthropomorphizing—imagining that the companion possesses human-like perceptive abilities. But anthropomorphism can also be more subtle, such as when a pet’s owner infers a deliberate, human-like motive after the pet does something comforting or frustrating.

What do people anthropomorphize besides animals?

People treat a range of things as if they possess distinctly human qualities. Anthropomorphized characters are a staple of myths, films, and books, from the competing wind and sun in one of Aesop's Fables to singing kitchenware in Beauty and the Beast. In everyday life, cars, computers, and other machines are sometimes treated as if they have minds. And, of course, robots are easy to anthropomorphize.

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Why We Anthropomorphize

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Attributing human intent to non-human animals, spirits, robots, or other entities, real or imagined, is one way that people make sense of the behaviors and events that they encounter. Humans are a social species with a brain that evolved to quickly process social information. The tendency to view non-humans in terms of human-like characteristics has been theorized to be a product of that evolution.

Can seeing pets in human terms be helpful?

Seeing pets or objects as human-like could help fulfill a social need, some scientists propose. Some research suggests that people who are lonelier or who tend to feel more worry or sensitivity about social relationships are somewhat more inclined to attribute certain human-like features (such as emotions) to their pets.

Can anthropomorphism cause misunderstandings?

Yes. Non-human animals share many mental faculties with humans. But the tendency to read animals based on human ways of thinking and behaving could lead people to exaggerate the similarities and misunderstand the meaning of animal behavior—or even project their own personality characteristics onto animals.

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