Seeing Human

Attributing human qualities to nonhuman entities

Posted Jun 18, 2010

From what I have gleaned from fellow PT bloggers, some of their entries excite readers in a bad way. On occasion, they get hundreds of hostile comments in response to what they write. That's good, I guess, in a hit sense, but I do not feel envious. Besides an occasional comment telling me that I'm stupid or that I don't understand the Bible, no one gets too bent out of shape by my essays. I like that, because I abhor conflict, crisis, and criticism. Maybe because I've been a college teacher for 35 years, I've learned how to profess without turning or pissing people off.

A minor exception was a recent blog entry I wrote titled "Dogs Don't Dance," which was not about dogs but rather about birds that do dance in a convincing way by a rigorous standard. Regardless, some readers took me to task and asserted that their dogs do dance. So what did I know about anything? (Answer: a lot, but I won't belabor the point.)

Okay. This essay is for them, plus any other readers who might be interested in anthropomorphizing: the tendency to attribute human qualities and characteristics to nonhuman entities, including dogs, birds, and other critters but also thingies like cars and computers as well as forces of nature like hurricanes and earthquakes.

Anthropomorphizing is more than using the same words to describe non-human entities as are used to describe humans. More specifically, anthropomorphizing entails assuming that the entity - whatever it may be - is capable of conscious experience, has intentions, and can serve as a source of social influence.

Adam Waytz, John Cacioppo, and Nicholas Epley (2010) recently published a paper on anthropomorphizing, which they found to be a consistent and stable individual difference. That is, some folks do it more than others, and in a series of creative studies, these researchers explored the correlates and consequences of the tendency. Before you read further, stop and think about what they might have discovered.

They measured anthropomorphizing with a self-report survey. Items, rated in terms of degree of agreement, included:
• To what extent does the average fish have free will?
• To what extent do cows have intentions?
• To what extent does the average robot have consciousness?
• To what extent does a tree have a mind of its own?
• To what extent does the ocean have consciousness?

Here are some of their findings. Folks more likely to anthropomorphize are also more likely to attribute emotions to animals; to consider and respect a nonhuman's interests and well-being (e.g., believing that IBM's legendary chess-playing computer program Deep Blue should not be destroyed); have greater environmental concern; trust a computer program to make medical decisions; and respond differently to a survey when questions are asked by a human-like robot (e.g., C-3PO versus R2D2). Interesting results!

Still, I wish they had studied a few additional characteristics of their research participants. I don't think of myself as a literal anthropomorphizer - except about my beloved 1997 Toyota Camry, with whom I have a relationship built on utter trust. But I am fond of metaphors and can metaphorically anthropomorphize with the best. So, do dogs dance? Literally: no. But metaphorically: of course. German shepherds can waltz; whippets can hip-hop; basset hounds can dance real slow. And golden retrievers don't care that we step on their feet - bless them! Left unanswered in the research by Waytz and colleagues is whether respondents are reporting on their beliefs in the literal or the metaphorical sense. Do poets do this more than accountants? What role does religion play? How about being a pet-owner?

 

As I read the article, I also fretted about the tendency of some people not to anthropomorphize - if that is even the right word - other human beings. Indeed, as a humanist, I'm more concerned about granting human status to people than about granting it to animals or things. It has been said that the primary lesson of the 20th century is that there is no them - only us. But if people do not include others in their moral circle - that is, as human beings - then we are doomed to repeat the 20th century (and all those terrible centuries preceding it).

But Waytz and colleagues did address this issue in their conclusion when they discussed dehumanizing other people. Although their studies did not speak directly to this issue, Waytz and colleagues drew parallels between what they did study and the phenomenon of not according human status to other human beings. Very good! A future study should look specifically at anthropomorphizing and dehumanizing. Do they go together, or does one obviate the other?

I still don't think that dogs literally dance. But people do ... all people!

Reference

Waytz, A., Cacioppo, J., & Epley, N. (2010). Who sees human? The stability and importance of individual differences in anthropomorphism. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 219-232.