Our thinking is egocentric, with ourselves as the only reference point. Among many scientists, understanding the world from a human perspective is regarded as a thinking error or bias, where we impose our point of view into the interpretation of animals and objects. Despite this, this is hardwired into how we think, a phenomenon which has been called an ‘irresistible taboo’. As we are born with an unconscious anthropomorphic bias, our worldview is influenced by a self-referential perspective that is difficult to see around. What aren’t we seeing?
How does this change the way we think and understand the world?
Anthropomorphism is everywhere these days. We give storms human names like Katrina; name insects after celebrities; weapons are frequently nicknamed, e.g. ‘Big Bertha’ Howitzer; and in America, one-in-four people have named their car.
In culture, the line between animals and humans is easily blurred in a world of CGI, on TV and in movies. Increasingly incorporated into anthropomorphic design trends, from architecture to facial features in cars, to homewares that mimics human forms.
Our early belief systems and religions were anthropomorphic; this has always been our way of understanding the world. Storms, rivers, the sun, and seasons were all seen and interacted with as if they had human characteristics and personalities. Today, we anthropomorphise everything from cars to smart speakers.
Our story telling is frequently focused around animals and creatures resembling humans. Many literary classics like ‘Wind in the Willows’, ‘Watership Down’, ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Jungle Book’ feature animals that possess human characteristics, values, and abilities. Popular culture and films also feature these characters, such as ‘Lassie’ and ‘Finding Nemo’. Contrary to this is the tension and terror created by creatures that we cannot anthropomorphise: Aliens, Zombies, and virus contagions.
This phenomena is a dominant way that brands attract and engage us. Sports teams use animals as totems to communicate values and build teams. Brands increasingly use animals to attract attention, from Mickey Mouse, Tony the Tiger, and Geico Gecko to Compare the Meerkat. Brands use logo’s with animals, that evoke anthropomorphic symbolism:
Why should we be aware of anthropomorphic bias?
There is no doubt that not everything can be anthropomorphised, but humans seem to have an almost limitless appetite for seeing ourselves reflected in the world around them. However, this doesn’t mean we do not discriminate. While we love to see our animals as humanlike, in other categories such as computers, people prefer to see themselves as different. It’s hard to identify with something that’s programmed and doesn’t have free will. Ironically, we are often unaware that we are looking at the world through an anthropomorphic lens that is pre-programmed.
In some situations, an anthropomorphic bias can mislead our perceptions. Pet owners often engage emotionally with their pets and are then frustrated when their projections are not reciprocated or that animals respond in a non-human manner. Has anyone not witnessed someone screaming at a printer or computer when it malfunctions as if complaining to another person?
The same deception can be perpetrated on a much larger scale. For example, we are prone to anthropomorphise nature as Mother Nature. Projecting on to her the mother-archetype as being nurturing, caring and harmonious. Nature, however, does not have an identity or gender, but is a system of interrelated phenomena of the physical world, that is as frequently destructive and beneficial, without any moral restraint.
What is anthropomorphism?
Anthropomorphism describes the tendency to imbue the real or imagined behaviour of non-human agents with human-like characteristics, motivations, intentions, or emotions.
We engage with anthropomorphic thinking in two ways:
- Interpretive Anthropomorphism – the attribution of intentions, beliefs and emotions to non-human animals or objects.
- Imaginative Anthropomorphism – representations of fictional characters and objects as being human-like.
What is the origin of anthropomorphism? An Evolutionary Psychology perspective.
It has been said that humans are ‘biophilic’ in the sense that we have a natural affinity for nature and animals. Humans have only relatively recently evolved from hunter-gather societies, where 99% of our history was spent with animals. But we’re obviously different.
In fact, the rapid increase in the size of our brains over the past 2.5 million years has been one of the main features that have distinguished humans from other animals. It is estimated that the size of our brains has tripled over that period of time. Such growth has resulted in an enormous demand on energy resources. Human brains are responsible for 20% of all calories we consume; it only represents 2% of your body weight, and it requires 20% of your body’s oxygen supply and 20% of your blood flow to function properly. This makes our big brains high maintenance organs.
If evolution occurs to solve a problem, what was the problem?
The evolution of our big brains potentially has a number of advantages, such as facilitating the construction of responses to novel, complex or unusual socio-ecological challenges. This makes large-brained mammals more likely to live longer, resulting in a more successful species.
As we are all aware, our ancestors were social apes, and a popular theory about the evolution of our brains suggests that it has something to do with our ability to think abstractly, to understand ourselves, and to communicate with our language. According to current theories, the growth of the brain is a part of our evolution that facilitates our ability to gossip more effectively. We have a certain perspective on gossips as a type of person, however, gossip has a positive social function in that it assists in bonding group members together. Among different group members, gossip allows for relative social comparisons to be made between them. This is an important component of the group dynamic. There is a cultural tendency to speak metaphorically as being the top dog or the top of the ‘pecking order’; however, society is still very status oriented, with everyone wanting to be King Kong.
The evolution of anthropomorphism from an enhanced social brain.
Nicholas Humphrey suggested that that the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness were adaptations to social life more broadly. Our need for better communication, co-ordination and sociability drove adaptive changes to the human mind. It was these changes to our consciousness and psychology that made us more successful.
Our psychological evolution as a species involved the development of ‘reflexive consciousness’
In each context, we might experience ‘anthropomorphic mental triggers’ which are responsible for the automatic activation of an anthropomorphic state of mind. Psychologically, these triggers result in three ways:
- the predisposition to classify living from non-living creatures differently and to easily recognise emotional and personal characteristic features in biological motion.
- the inclination to recognise meaningful faces in perceptive configurations.
- the ability to understand the intentions of other people and to follow their gaze.
Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist, has linked the advantages of this evolution to the development of social intelligence, and the awareness of others in a group. Specifically, ‘the ability to infer mental states of those individuals’. The ability to read others’ emotions and intentions is a significant advantage to social behaviour and coordination.
The impact of social interaction on today’s human brain, Robin Dunbar, et al (2012) have been able to link current brain size with how good you are at maintaining your friendships. They link the size of the prefrontal cortex with a person’s skills at ‘mind reading’, towards understanding what others are thinking.
What is an example of anthropomorphic bias being misleading?
Anything that is ‘automatic’ can become an unconscious bias. Across the sciences there is a vigorous debate on how anthropomorphism influences the way that we think and infer meaning.
Looking at our understanding of animals can illustrate how anthropomorphic thinking influences our thinking.
Perhaps the most famous response to this automatic anthropomorphising of animals is Morgan’s Canon or Law of Parsimony:
In other words, in trying not to project how we see the world onto animals, we might be denying the possibility that they experience the world is some similar ways.
Animal rights movements have drawn criticism in this area from two polar perspectives:
- Proponents: see it as speciesism, where there is a tendency to neglect the genuine features of animal species, conflating them in relation to humans only.
- Critics: anthropomorphism is blamed for mistakenly assigning emotions and feelings to animals that don’t feel them.
This debate has led to the development of ‘constructive anthropomorphism’, which acknowledges that animals might not have the same feelings as humans, but no harm is done to them from this projection.
What are the implications of being aware of anthropomorphic bias?
There are many opportunities and challenges present in this bias if we are not aware of them.
To focus on an example, our propensity to see faces in other objects.
Our desire to perceive anthropomorphically is linked to pareidolia: this is when you perceive a specific, often meaningful image, in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. Most often we see faces in these patterns. Furthermore, we unconsciously perceive faces through pareidolia without being aware of it. From a very early age our brains are attracted by faces over other visual stimuli. Our attraction for faces is so powerful that images of face-pareidolia evoke similar emotional meaning.
The positive of this is that designers have incorporated faces within design, e.g. of cars, making them facially expressive and relevant. There are a wide range of brand logo’s that make use of pareidolia to evoke positive emotions. While being aware that your brain is being attracted to these (hidden) design features is informative, the impact is relatively benign.
A negative of this need can be seen in the breeding of designer pets. Our drive for cuteness has led to dogs with physiological features that aren’t conducive for their wellbeing and quality of life.
Alternatively, as discussed above, anthropomorphising can be used constructively to build empathy towards animals in a positive way by inferring human feelings.
When it comes to anthropomorphic bias, it is a bias that we all share when compared to other types of bias. We can consider the example of implicit bias, a situation where people have personal prejudices or stereotypes towards them without being conscious of it.
As a species, in seeing the world in a self-referential way, there are implications to the way we perceive things. Imaginative anthropomorphism seems to be the more conscious and engaging application of this type of thinking. It inspires stories, movies, and design in many positive ways. However, the totemic power of anthropomorphised mascot animals needs to be balanced with the same negative persuasive power of mascots, historically used in tobacco and children’s food.
Interpretive anthropomorphism is the form of this phenomenon that is more intuitive and automatic in nature. It has been discussed above that this can have both positive and negative effects on domestic animals as well as animals in nature. As humans become increasingly immersed in technology, virtual worlds and the Metaverse, this will be an interesting challenge to overcome. There is the possibility of an encyclopedic range of avatars in the near future, if not already there.
For example, if we consider robotics, the drive has been to historically create something anthropomorphic, some of the major advancements have occurred when the robots are designed not to look like us. For instance, in being able to jump, or maneuver, to demonstrating speed and strength. Can we ask ourselves: what other areas are we holding ourselves back in because of our anthropomorphic bias?