Why We Anthropomorphize Things?
Understanding the Cognitive Bias
“The language of a river inscribes
over eyes of moths and flies
the navel of the land is a lake.”― Sneha Subramanian Kanta, Synecdoche
We have been anthropomorphizing for as long as we have been around—the tendency to think of things as humans.
Anthropomorphization is a cognitive bias that can be defined in many ways, but it usually involves attributing human characteristics to non-human objects or animals. For example, we might believe that an animal who understands our thoughts must be intelligent because intelligence is associated with humans. We also tend to empathize more towards particular objects because they look like us or have other human-like features.
There are two main reasons why we do this:
First, we anthropomorphize to understand better what is happening in the world. If something looks like it understands you, you will treat it better than if it looks like an animal without any emotional expressions.
Second, anthropomorphizing makes us feel better. It makes us believe that the world is more controlled than it is by giving entities human properties that are very understandable.
There are several famous examples where people have anthropomorphized objects or animals to create actual beliefs that even they believed. These cases can be seen as real delusions. There are countless examples in fiction where characters treat non-human objects or animals as humans. But what do these cases have in common? What are the possible explanations for why people do this?
My attempt to answer these questions is based on “Who Sees Human? The Stability and Importance of Individual Differences in Anthropomorphism by Adam Waytz, John Cacioppo, and Nicholas Epley”. It contains many of their experiments that support my ideas. If you are interested in the neurology behind anthropomorphizing, then I recommend reading it.
The ability to anthropomorphize comes from our ability to think about other minds. This is known as Theory of Mind (ToM) — the understanding that there are minds with different contents than our own, nor are amenable to being observed directly. There are some processes necessary for ToM — one of them is mirror neurons, cells in your brain that fire both when you perform an action and when you observe someone else doing the same thing. They are responsible for our ability to empathize with others, which helps us understand their intentions, desires, feelings, etc.
Anthropomorphizing is related to empathy — You see something that looks human or has human-like features. Hence, you have an automatic empathetic reaction towards them, making it easy to imagine what they are thinking. Then you project your thoughts onto it because it’s so easy to do.
In the article by Waytz et al., a crucial experiment showed that people with higher cognitive empathy are more likely to anthropomorphize because they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what another person might be thinking or feeling. In contrast, those with high affective empathy were less likely to anthropomorphize because they attached feelings of warmth and affection towards something without understanding its thoughts.
Anthropomorphizing is an Essential Human Tendency
Children are curious about their world. They are always asking questions, and they are always noticing little details, like how a tree has bark or how a dog has fur.
Anthropomorphizing is an essential human tendency. We give our pets human qualities because they make them more relatable. We give our cars human qualities because they seem more trustworthy or reliable.
Humans attribute human characteristics to entities outside the human sphere because it is an essential part of being human. Our ancestors needed this ability to survive, but anthropomorphizing also leads to good things like art, science, superstition, etc.
Anthropomorphic thinking provides many benefits for people when trying to understand one another or the world around them. It helps people recognize what others are thinking and feeling to understand. It allows people to negotiate better, share knowledge more quickly, etc. — all these processes enable us to function smoothly.
Animals Have Been Anthropomorphized All Throughout History & Mythology
Animals have been used as characters since the beginning of time. Ra’s eye is a cat in Egyptian mythology, and Bastet is his daughter. In Greek mythology, Zeus has a pet panther named Heracles. In Norse mythology, Odin’s horse is called Sleipnir, and in Roman mythology, Mercury rode on a winged horse named Pegasus.
In folklore from around the world, there are many different legends about animals with human qualities — stories about humans who transform into animals or have an animal as their companion or animal helper. Animals have been used as symbols in various stories and religions for centuries because they represent all kinds of human qualities: altruism, loyalty, gracefulness, ferocity, and many more.
In the same way, animals have been anthropomorphized; humans have been zoomorphized. In religious texts from around the world, there are many different stories about people turning into animals. In Greek mythology, Zeus turns into a swan to seduce Leda and turn her into a mother of twins. The Inca believed that they could become jaguars to fight for fertility in their communities.
It is clear how one can relate to these animal characters, which cause them to be an essential part of our history and culture because we see ourselves in them — it’s effortless for us to project human qualities onto other living things without realizing it. Anthropomorphizing helps us make sense of our world, but at the same time, it can cause us to lose track of what is real or not.
How do we do it?
Anthropomorphizing often makes something less scary by giving it some human-like qualities. For example:
People anthropomorphize all sorts of objects and entities that can’t have human qualities — hurricanes, volcanoes, oceans, mountains, the weather, etc.
People also tend to anthropomorphize objects with abstract purposes.
- People think about their computers as people because they can process information at incredible speeds without talking back to them or accusing them of being useless or lazy bums who don’t want to help us do our work even though it is not their intention at all.
- We think of clouds as little fluffy cotton balls or white marshmallows because they are soft and cuddly, and we want to play with them all day. Suppose it wasn’t because they are made of water droplets (which is only valid in most cases since there are different kinds of clouds with other compositions). In that case, people would not like nature as much because nature is usually cold, wet, loud, or dark, which means it doesn’t have any bright colors.
Anthropomorphizing often happens subconsciously, so most people don’t realize they are doing it at all. When someone claims that they are not anthropomorphizing, it usually means that they are aware of the fact that what they are saying isn’t true — for example:
“Cats have whiskers, so they must be good at feeling their way around in the dark” is an example of anthropomorphizing because cats can see fine even if it’s too dark to see anything.
“Trees don’t have any feelings, so we should chop them down to build houses and furniture out of them because it doesn’t hurt them.” is an example of a mistake since trees feel pain when you cut them down. We know this through scientific research, which Professor Dr. Daniel Chamovitz has done from Tel Aviv University. He says: “If we wind a clock and then break the mechanism, the clock does not feel anything an inert pile of parts.” Since trees are like any other living thing, they also don’t want to be cut down to die.
“Monkeys scream when you poke them with a stick because they must feel scared or in pain.” is an example of anthropomorphizing since monkeys can’t understand what we say. We only assume that our actions affect them because we believe that they have human feelings — but it’s not true — if humans wouldn’t be afraid of poking each other with sticks for no reason, why would monkeys?
Anthropomorphizing happens all the time and everywhere — even if you believe that you are not anthropomorphizing, research has shown that humans tend to think of human qualities as good. So you could assume, for example, “Thunderstorms are loud, so they must be the bossiest.” Although this might sound utterly irrational at first, it’s true because scientists have found out that thunderstorms are much louder than other kinds of storms, making them more dominant to scare people away from their territory or something like that.
So now you know why sharks have lots of sharp teeth even though they don’t eat candy all day long, why there are no flying pigs but flying monkeys instead, and why trees would never want to be cut down into tiny bits even if they might look beautiful when shaped into little furniture which you can place into your living room to impress your guests.
Are you aware of how you anthropomorphize? Can you think of how this can be helpful or not? How about the divine principle? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!