We think unpredictability means humanness

Humans are unpredictable. And if an object is, we tend to think of it as human, too.

We ascribe a mind to non-human agents to explain and rationalize behavior we don’t understand. If we can’t comprehend why an object is acting in a certain way—a TV that keeps switching on and off, a car that won’t start, a computer that won’t turn on—we are more likely to anthropomorphize it than when it is acting normally. Case in point: my plants. I could have taken the time to research the species of Chinese evergreens to understand the perfect combination of sunlight and water necessary to curtail their “inexplicable” browning; instead, I attributed it a devious mind.

Another example is “Clocky,” an alarm clock designed by MIT engineers that has wheels that spin if you press snooze, sending it barreling around the room until you catch it. Epley and his colleagues used Clocky to test under what conditions people were most likely to anthropomorphize a gadget. In one experiment, Epley told some participants that Clocky is very predictable and that it can be programmed to run away from you when you press snooze. They told other participants that Clocky is inherently unpredictable, and that when you press snooze, it either runs away from you or jumps on top of you.

When asked how much the gadget has “a mind of its own” and the extent to which it could “experience feelings,” participants not only rated the unpredictable Clocky as significantly more mindful, but literally thought of it that way: When Epley’s team asked these questions while the participants were in an fMRI scanner, they found that the same neural regions—mainly the medial pre-frontal cortex—activated when thinking about other people’s minds were also activated when thinking about the unpredictable Clocky.

This effect explains why we’re more likely to speak to our car as if it were a human  on a freezing morning when it “refuses” to start up, but think of it as fine-tuned metal when it functions perfectly. (The same “Car Talk” survey confirmed this when it found participants routinely attributed personalities to cars that needed more unexpected repairs.) It’s also why when a computer malfunctions we attribute it with a ”mind of its own,” and why we attribute mindful intentions to unpredictable financial markets or unexpected hurricanes.

When it comes to explaining these seemingly random occurrences, physics, meteorology, engineering, and neuroscience can provide factual explanations for all. But these answers are complicated and, frankly, most of us aren’t willing to invest time in understanding them. However, “the presence of a mind provides an intuitive explanation for all three without any advanced degrees,” Epley writes. “Desires and goals describe why an agent starts and stops…[and] beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, and emotions all help to describe the direction and nature of an action.” However imprecise and inaccurate ascribing these mental states on inanimate objects may be, it provides us with functional, accessible explanations for events we don’t understand.

Anthropomorphization is a totally normal social action

According to Epley, people who name objects and treat them as human are not delusional fools: The psychological mechanisms behind anthropomorphism are the same as those behind human-to-human social interaction.

“For centuries, our willingness to recognize minds in nonhumans has been seen as a kind of stupidity, a childlike tendency toward anthropomorphism and superstition that educated and clear-thinking adults have outgrown,” writes Epley. “I think this view is both mistaken and unfortunate. Recognizing the mind of another human being involves the same psychological processes as recognizing a mind in other animals, a god, or even a gadget. It is a reflection of our brain’s greatest ability rather than a sign of our stupidity.”

While studies have not yet explicitly proven the link between anthropomorphic tendencies and social intelligence, Epley believes the association is likely strong. The more often we engage with other human minds, and the more deeply and successfully we read other humans intentions, the more socially intelligent we become.

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