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?
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.