I have always found it funny, if not creepy, when pet owners talk to their dog or cat as if they were — you know — human, but the joke seems to be on me. People who talk to their pets are apparently not crazy but actually super intelligent!
That’s what several studies have found. The behavior is known as anthropomorphizing, which means giving human minds and names to not only pets and other sentient entities, but also to objects like cars or a volleyball with a face painted on it.
Anthropomorphizing also means giving non-humans traits associated with humans such as condemning your car as being ‘stubborn’ when it’s not working properly. Apparently, doing this means your brain is programmed to see and perceive minds.
This of course begs the questions, have you or anyone you know had a conversation with a stuck-up plant? And, no, Paris Hilton doesn’t count.
In an interview with Quartz, Nicholas Epley, behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago, said:
“Historically, anthropomorphising has been treated as a sign of childishness or stupidity, but it’s actually a natural byproduct of the tendency that makes humans uniquely smart on this planet.
No other species has this tendency.”
Let me get this — just because humans are the only species on earth capable of anthropomorphizing means talking to a wall makes a person super intelligent? Compared to what other human? Hmmm, not sure I buy it…
There are three primal reasons why anyone might anthropomorphise an object. Firstly, the non-human subject might look like it has a face; secondly, we might want to be friends with the subject; or thirdly, we can’t explain its unpredictable behavior and want to better understand it.
Things can sometimes backfire, though — like when you see fake eyes and immediately associate them with having a mind. As Epley further describes:
“Fake eyes are a trick we fall for almost every time — one that can dupe us into seeing a mind where no mind exists.
As a member of one of the planet’s most social species, you are hypersensitive to eyes because they offer a window into another person’s mind.”
Anthropomorphise could also be a sign of loneliness. That is, the lonelier we are, the stronger the trigger becomes. Take for example the movie Castaway, in which Tom Hank’s stranded character becomes best friends with Wilson, a volleyball with a face on it.
I am tempted to accept anthropomorphizing as just one of those things that makes us human, if not downright weird, but I’ve seen cats and dogs treat and play with a mop as if that mop was one of them. Or is that their imagination at to work?
Am I overthinking this?
Either way, now that I have formally been acquainted with the human behaviour known “anthropomorphizing”, I’ll think twice before shrugging the next person I see talking to their pet. They might not be crazy, but I’m still not 100 percent convinced they’re necessarily super intelligent.