Originally published April 10, 2015
Have you ever assigned human-like traits to animals or even inanimate objects? If so, you’ve participated in something called anthropomorphism. We often attribute emotions to animals and intentionality to mindless objects. Every time you mistake your coat-rack for an intruder or claim that your puppy loves you, you are guilty of anthropomorphizing.
Anthropomorphism is the tendency to assign human traits such as physical qualities, emotions, intentions or thoughts to non-human objects such as animals or objects.
Humans naturally treat everything as if it possesses some degree of understanding or responsibility. (Have you ever cursed at your printer or encouraged your car to start?) This is a byproduct of our tendency to anthropomorphize. It permeates our perception. It is a commonality in human life, and one that can be particularly problematic given the right circumstances.
But why do we anthropomorphize?
Long story short: it’s the way we’re naturally wired. Human brains are tuned to try to understand other human’s intentions, thoughts and feelings. This concept is called Theory of Mind. Specific regions of the brain contain populations of ‘mirror’ neurons, which display the same activity when we’re performing an action as when we observe others performing an action.
People with deficits in the regions where these mirror neurons are located correspond to deficits in empathy and Theory of Mind. Unsurprisingly, these are the same regions of the brain that are active when a person is anthropomorphizing.
Predicting the actions of animals and inanimate objects employs the same brain regions as predicting the behavior of another human. Though we can consciously differentiate between human and non-human, the same mechanisms in our brain are activated when we are observing actions of both.
It is important to note that the way we experience our thoughts is not just constrained by our perception, but the language we have available to communicate our perception. Think about it this way: Most people would agree that a mouse cannot think like a human. At the very least, you can probably agree that you cannot tell what a mouse is thinking. To know what a mouse is thinking you would either have to be a mouse or be able to talk to a mouse.
So how do we explain mouse behaviors? What is a mouse doing if not thinking? We don’t have a word for it. To fall into my own trap, we can’t think like a mouse, so we have no words to describe what may be happening inside a mouse’s head. We’re forced to imagine things like only a human can because after all, we are only humans.
So what’s the use of anthropomorphism?
It’s quite easy to justify why we would want to understand other humans. We’re a social species, and thus need to be able to comprehend others to at least some degree. But is anthropomorphism just a byproduct of an overenthusiastic brain trying to give Theory of Mind to everything?
Doubtful. Evolutionarily speaking, it is almost always better to assume something is smarter than it is. More accurately, it is almost always better to assume that the something is out to get you and that the something is intelligent enough to be worried about.
Believing every shadowy figure is a robber is much safer than believing every shadowy figure is a bathrobe. Believing every spider is full of malicious hate for mankind is safer than not giving any spider a second thought.
Think of your anthropomorphic brain as a highly sophisticated better safe than sorry mechanism. We’re programmed to believe, at least initially, that everything we see behaving is behaving with some degree of intentionality. The results of this can be good or bad.
What are the consequences of anthropomorphism?
As mentioned above, anthropomorphism is usually a good thing. But when can anthropomorphizing go awry?
Dr. Shannon Gourley, a professor of Neuroscience at Emory University, describes anthropomorphism as “a dual threat.”
“Firstly, we run the risk of trivializing the human condition. Can a mouse really experience the debilitating nature of schizophrenia? Of autism? We just don't know. And the related issue pertains to the limits of our ability as scientists to interpret our data. If we attribute human-like traits to an animal, we run the risk of failing to consider other possibilities. For example, is the mouse huddled in the corner because it is "depressed," or because it's simply cold? Or ill?”
Even despite the risks, it is not uncommon to hear a meteorologist to talk about the wrath of nature or a biologist to talk about what a cell wants to do. It is especially tempting to anthropomorphize when research appears directly translatable to common human experiences.
However, Dr. Gourley reminds us that “Reporting that the mouse develops ‘depression-like’ behaviors is more scientifically accurate -- and it allows us to bear in mind the alternative possibilities, and to acknowledge the limitations of our own knowledge which are bound by the fundamental inability to directly communicate with animals.”
Our brain’s predisposition for giving agency leads us to see intention, thought, and cause in the natural world, even when it is not explainable. We naturally attribute intentionality to everything we see: whether it has a human brain, an animal brain, or no brain at all.
Anthropomorphism is so prevalent that some biologists and biological philosophers claim that it is the basis for people’s perception of higher powers, or gods, acting on the world. When thinking about deities, the same brain regions within the brain are active as when attributing Theory of Mind to other humans.
Since the beginning of time, humans have been attributing unexplainable events to entities that they cannot see or feel, only sense and infer. Some scientists claim the neurological basis for anthropomorphizing contributes to this phenomenon. In essence, we could even be constructing ideas of gods in the image of ourselves.