Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Anthropomorphism is the phenomenon of attributing human emotions or behavior to non-human entities, including animals. It is a very common way of interacting or communicating with the world.

What Is Anthropomorphism?

Anthropomorphism is a phenomenon characterized by the intentional or unintentional attribution of emotions and behaviours to living and non-living entities. Some people assign human emotions to animals such as cats or dogs and perceive them as a pseudo-human. People also anthropomorphize unseen beings i.e God as possessing human features. The term is derived from the Greek word “Anthropos” meaning “human” and “morphe” meaning “form”. A 2010 study 1 Davies J. (2010). Anthropomorphism in science. EMBO reports, 11(10), 721. defines anthropomorphism as “a human characteristic to assign human emotion and behaviour to other living creatures.”

Personification is also often found in abstract concepts such as nations, emotions, or even natural forces (seasons or weather). Most cultures have traditional fables that anthropomorphized animals as characters as a way of storytelling. Attributing human characteristics or behavior to a God, animal, or object is found to be a typical human tendency in all aspects of life. Some people tend to anthropomorphize more than others.

Origin Of Anthropomorphism

Xenophanes, a Greek philosopher first used the term to describe how Gods and other supernatural agents tended to bear a striking physical resemblance to their believers. He described that anthropomorphizing can be done in two distinct ways. The first way involves attributing human-like physical features such as hands or face to non-human objects. The second way involves attributing a human-like mind to non-humans i.e intentions, awareness, or emotions.

A 2007 scientific review 2 Morewedge CK, Preston J, Wegner DM. Timescale bias in the attribution of mind. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2007 Jul;93(1):1-11. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.93.1.1. PMID: 17605584. pointed out that the presence of mental states constitutes both a necessary and sufficient condition for humanness since the presence of a human-like face or body movement generally implies the presence of a human-like mental state as well.

One of the most notable criticisms began in the 1600s when Francis Bacon pointed out that everything behaves as it does in order to achieve some end, or in order to fulfill itself. He stated that achieving end goals is a human activity and attributing it to nature misconstrues it as human-like.

Why People Resort To Anthropomorphism?

It is a common human behavior of attributing emotions to living or non-living things as a way of making sense of how the world works. They tend to try to make sense of the events they encounter in life. People in some cultures tend to attribute human characteristics to deities, which often include jealousy, pride, and love. Some individuals may explain threatening natural events like fires or thunderstorms in anthropomorphic terms.

It is a way of humans making sense of how the universe and its entities work. Experts believe that some people tend to see pets as humans in a way of fulfilling their social needs. A 2018 study 3 Airenti G. (2018). The Development of Anthropomorphism in Interaction: Intersubjectivity, Imagination, and Theory of Mind. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 2136. suggests that some people who are lonely or are sensitive about social relationships are more inclined to attribute human emotions and behaviors to their pets. The study explains that “anthropomorphism is a basic human attitude that begins in infants and persists throughout life. The difference between adults and children is not qualitative but rather a matter of complexity.”

Anthropomorphism can also cause misunderstandings since the human tendency of reading animal behavior as “human-like” can often be misinterpreted. Some people tend to exaggerate the similarities between humans and animals or even project their own personality traits on their pets. There is no scientific evidence that suggests that “smarter people are more inclined to talk to their pets”.

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Anthropomorphism In Objects

Some people tend to see or draw faces in objects such as the moon’s surface or clouds or in certain foods. This phenomenon is known as pareidolia. This phenomenon can explain why human brains tend to register “faces” even though the clouds or pizza doesn’t resemble one. This occurs in an attempt to fulfil themselves since objects lack the human emotions that an individual may crave.

Anthropomorphism In Religion And Mythology

In the case of religion and mythology, anthropomorphism is practiced in divine beings perceived in human forms, having extraordinary capabilities that humans don’t possess. These divine beings not only resemble humans, but they are also used to explain natural phenomena, creation, and historic events. Some people even refer to this as “divine intervention”.

In Anthropomorphized versions, the deities fell in love, got married, had children, fought battles, wielded weapons, and displayed all human characteristics. Some deities also represent certain emotions such as love, war, beauty, or fertility. Anthropomorphic deities also displayed human emotions such as greed, shame, anger, jealousy, love, forgiveness, or wisdom.

Greek deities, Zeus, and Apollo were also depicted as humans who exhibited commendable and despicable human qualities. This is known as theomorphism or giving of divine qualities to humans. Some religions 4 Barrett JL, Keil FC. Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cogn Psychol. 1996 Dec;31(3):219-47. doi: 10.1006/cogp.1996.0017. PMID: 8975683. believe in theomorphism while others such as Judaism or Islam do not believe in an anthropomorphic deity. They believe that God is beyond human comprehension. Hindus, on the other hand, do not reject the concept of deity since they believe that people need to believe with their senses.

Anthropomorphism In Science

Anthropomorphism in science suggesting that animals have intentions and emotions has been deprecated due to its lack of objectivity. Experts 5 Shapiro, K. J. (1993). Editor’s introduction to society and animals. Society & Animals, 1(1), 1-4.×00091 have been warned to avoid the assumption that animals share any mental, social, or emotional capabilities as humans. They are also advised to strictly rely on observational evidence rather than assumptions.

In 1927, Ian Pavlov, a Russian Empire, and Soviet physiologist pointed out that animals should be considered “without any need to resort to fantastic speculations as to the existence of any possible subjective states”. In 1986, the Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour advised that “one is well advised to study the behaviour rather than attempting to get any underlying emotion”

The study of great apes in their own environment and in captivity has greatly impacted the attitude towards Anthropomorphism. In the 1960s, Jane Goodall, an anthropologist, studied 6 Arroyo, S. (2016). Handbook Of Biological Anthropology. PSU Library – Palawan State University Library. chimpanzees, Dian Fossey, a conservationist, studied gorillas and Birute Galdikas studied orangutans were all accused of the “worst of the ethological sins-anthropomorphism”. In recent times, it is more widely accepted that empathy has a crucial role to play in research. However, some experts believe that assigning animals with human emotion has been a scientific taboo for decades. Thus the studying of apes has only confirmed their linguistic abilities and being excellent tool makers.

Other studies 7 VON UEXKÜLL, J. (1992). A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds. , 89(4), 319-391. found that both humans and cats have identical neurochemicals and regions in the brain responsible for emotion. However, it is not anthropomorphic to credit cats with emotions such as jealousy.

Anthropomorphism In Psychology

An empirical study of anthropomorphism conducted in 1944 by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel involved a long animation of several shapes moving around on the screen in varying directions at various speeds. When subjects were asked to describe what they saw they were found to assign intentions and personalities to the shapes.

For instance, the large triangle was characterized as a bully that was chasing the other two shapes, until they tricked the large triangle and escaped. Research confirms that when people see objects making motions for no apparent reason, they tend to view the objects as intentional agents. A 2006 study 8 Bering JM. The folk psychology of souls. Behav Brain Sci. 2006 Oct;29(5):453-62; discussion 462-98. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X06009101. PMID: 17156519. saw a rapid increase in understanding people’s propensity to turn non-human objects into human ones.

Modern psychologists 9 The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrationality Makes us Happy, Healthy, and Sane tend to characterize anthropomorphism as a cognitive bias. Anthropomorphism in cognitive bias implies that people assign human emotions to non-human entities in order to make efficient judgments about the situation, even if it is not always accurate. Anthropomorphism is also often used as a coping mechanism for loneliness when other human connections are unavailable. A 2007 study 10 Gazzola V, Rizzolatti G, Wicker B, Keysers C. The anthropomorphic brain: the mirror neuron system responds to human and robotic actions. Neuroimage. 2007 May 1;35(4):1674-84. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.02.003. Epub 2007 Feb 13. PMID: 17395490. found a neural correlation with anthropomorphism and identified deficits in anthropomorphism for amygdala damaged patients as well as people diagnosed with autism.

Psychologist Adam Waytz 11 Epley N, Waytz A, Cacioppo JT. On seeing human: a three-factor theory of anthropomorphism. Psychol Rev. 2007 Oct;114(4):864-86. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.114.4.864. PMID: 17907867. and his colleagues created a three-factor theory to describe when people are most likely to anthropomorphize. They are:

  • Elicited agent knowledge: The amount of prior knowledge held around an object and the extent to which that information is called to mind
  • Effectance: The drive or desire to interact with and understand one’s environment
  • Sociality: The intense need to establish social connections and interactions

When elicited knowledge is minimal but effectance and sociality are maximum, people are more likely to anthropomorphize. Children often anthropomorphize and use egocentric reasoning from an early age to make sense of events and tend to use it more frequently as adults. For instance, children describing a stormy cloud as angry or drawing flowers with faces. A report 12 Scholl BJ, Tremoulet PD. Perceptual causality and animacy. Trends Cogn Sci. 2000 Aug;4(8):299-309. doi: 10.1016/s1364-6613(00)01506-0. PMID: 10904254. assessed children’s capacity to perceive human-like intentions in non-human stimuli in the trajectory of learning to reason about mental states.

Studies 13 The power of pets. (2020). NIH News in Health. found that adults also show significant improvements in case of depression, social anxiety, or other mental illnesses when they tend to anthropomorphize emotional support from animals. Doctors are also often found to advise having a pet around as a means of boosting mental health. Sometimes pets can satisfy emotional or social connections in patients with mental illnesses.

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Consequences Of Anthropomorphism

A scientific study 14 Waytz, A., Cacioppo, J., & Epley, N. (2010). Who Sees Human? The Stability and Importance of Individual Differences in Anthropomorphism. Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 5(3), 219–232. reported that there may be three major consequences for perceiving an agent as human-like for both the perceiver and the agent. First, attributing emotions to objects means that the agent or object has a mind of its own and hence must be treated as a moral agent, worthy of care and concern. Second, having a mind of its own also means that the agent is capable of intentional action and can therefore be held responsible for their actions.

Thirdly, if the agent has a mind of its own ultimately means that it is capable of observing, evaluating, and judging a human, thereby serving as a normal social influence on the individual. A 2007 study 15 Gray HM, Gray K, Wegner DM. Dimensions of mind perception. Science. 2007 Feb 2;315(5812):619. doi: 10.1126/science.1134475. PMID: 17272713. confirmed that the dimensions of mind perceptions offered different moral judgments that were often related to the valuing of the mind.

Attempting To Achieve Human Connection

People are more likely to anthropomorphize when anthropocentric knowledge is accessible and applicable, when motivated to be effective social agents or when there is a lack of social connection to other humans. Hence these factors help explain why anthropomorphism is so variable. As humans, anthropomorphizing objects and claiming it to have a mind of its own is only a means to make sense of things and receive emotional support.

Anthropomorphism At A Glance

  1. Anthropomorphism is the phenomenon of attributing human emotions or behavior to non-human entities, including animals.
  2. Anthropomorphism is a phenomenon characterized by the intentional or unintentional attribution of emotions and behaviors to living and non-living entities.
  3. It is a common human behavior of attributing emotions to living or non-living things as a way of making sense of how the world works.
  4. Anthropomorphism can also cause misunderstandings since the human tendency of reading animal behavior as “human-like” can often be misinterpreted.


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