On Anthropomorphism: A Short Introduction

One of the main ways that animal interests are misunderstood is through anthropomorphism. In order to explore this I’m going to publish an occasional blog with examples of anthropomorphism from the media and, usually, a comment from an animal behavior or other expert about the motivations of the nonhuman animals portrayed.

But, what exactly is anthropomorphism?

Anthropomorphism simply defined is when people infer the motivations, emotions or psychology of nonhuman animals or objects in a way that reflects their own human motivations or understanding. The classic study on this was done in 1944 by Heider and Simmel. Here is the movie they used; what do you think is going on here?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZBKer6PMtM]

Humans automatically make inferences about mental states even in the case of objects. This has been shown repeatedly, even in infants  (example).

In the case of anthropomorphizing animals, there are many ideas about why this might have evolved. Some of the most intelligent animals or earth, such as species of dolphins, primates and parrots have to navigate a complex social world. Theory of mind, or an ability to attribute mental states, is essential to understanding the motivations of others for cooperation, competition, affiliation and mating. Generalizing your human theory of mind to nonhuman animals – in a way that projects human motivations onto them – is perhaps just a byproduct of this highly developed aspect of the human mind.  Another idea is that understanding the motivational states of other animals may have helped early humans hunt.

Highly anthropomorphic perceptions of animal provide hunting peoples with a framework of  understanding, identifying with, and anticipating the behavior or their prey- James Serpell quoted here

Regardless of why anthropomorphism exists – even if it evolved to facilitate hunting – it may play an important role in the foundation of ethics towards nonhuman animals.  A 2009 study found that belief in animal mind is a significant predictor of being against animal use.  Of course there is objective scientific evidence that most animals, especially the ones commonly eaten or otherwise used by humans, have minds. In this “On Anthropomorphism” series of blogs I plan to look at the ways people misinterpret the mental states of animals using their intuition or theory of mind.  Anthropomorphism can be benign but as we will see it can also cut both ways- acting to increase empathy and compassion or facilitate animal use in ways that cause suffering.

4 responses to “On Anthropomorphism: A Short Introduction”

  1. Jane Easton says :

    Good topic! I have read that pro-animal scientists often stifle their findings, so concerned are they about being labelled ‘anthropomorphic’. There is such a vast body of recorded observations about sentient behaviour in animals – including altruism, aesthetic appreciation, humour etc. Scientific observation doesn’t have to include huge numbers to form a hypothesis at the very least? like Marc Bekoff’s work on this – he’s an ethologist, specialising in wild and domestic dogs but has a lot to say about other animals too.

    • Diana says :

      Yes! I’m a fan of Marc Bekoff. I find it amazing that when animals, especially vertebrates, are found to have complex cognitive faculties e.g. empathy, play behaviour their is this surprise portrayed in the media.
      As for “pro-animal” scientists stifling their findings, one’s findings can always be described in a conservative way. I have heard also of pro-animal scientists stifling negative findings, showing that animals, especially primates, cannot do something that primatologists thought they could do.

  2. veganelder says :

    You write: “Anthropomorphism can be benign but as we will see it can also cut both ways- acting to increase empathy and compassion or facilitate animal use in ways that cause suffering.”

    Could you elaborate a bit as to what you mean by the facilitating suffering thought?


    • Diana says :

      Thanks for your comment veganelder. Hal Herzog has a great anecdote about anthropomorphism gone wrong in “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat”. He talks about a couple who go white water rafting with their tiny shivering dog and how the raft gets flipped and the dog rides on the man’s head to shore. The idea that a dog would enjoy white water rafting is anthropomorphism. In zoos sometimes naturally solitary animals are kept in groups because humans think they need “friends” to be psychologically healthy while normally social animals, like elephants, are sometimes kept alone sometimes through the rationalization that human contact is enough for them. Diana Goodrich of Chimpanzee Sanctuary NW describes seeing chimpanzees in a basement with no enrichment but a television. I know from working with chimpanzees in the past that they have no interest in television whatsoever unless they are watching a film of themselves or chimpanzees they know. I have some other ideas but don’t want to give them away just yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *