I frequently talk to my plants. “Harold, you look dapper today,” I compliment my tiny green succulent. “Did you miss me?” I ask my Chinese evergreen. Once they begin plotting their slow, synchronized deaths, our conversations tend to intensify. “What’s your problem,” I sigh, moving them in and out of sunlight. “We used to be friends.”
When children name toys and talk to inanimate objects, we grownups delight in their adorable drive for companionship and their desire to build identities. But the opposite is true for adults. Societal norms dictate that assigning human minds to non-human objects—a phenomenon called anthropomorphism—is a tendency we ought to outgrow; past puberty, those who still talk to their stuffed bunny or name their household appliances are perceived as immature—if not crazy.
But there’s a scientific explanation for why we anthropomorphize as adults—and it’s rooted in intelligence, not ignorance.
“Historically, anthropomorphizing 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,” says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. “No other species that has this tendency.” Epley is the author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, and arguably the world’s foremost anthropomorphism expert. He says that whether we realize it or not, we anthropomorphize objects and events all the time.
For example, we often name objects like cars, instruments, boats, and cameras—all items that we develop special relationships with and consider extensions of our own identities. But it goes beyond naming: We think our cat is acting “sassy”; that the stock market is “angry” or “working to recover;” and we ask our car “why it won’t turn on” and call it a “rickety old man” when it starts to stall. This is just the byproduct of having an active, intelligent social cognition—of having a brain that is programmed to see and perceive minds.
The most common form of anthropomorphization is anointing inanimate objects with human names. This tendency has been around for over a thousand years, with ship and sword naming evident in early Homeric epics. “If you’re a legendary knight, you trust and defend your life through your weapon, and if you’re on a ship a few hundred years ago, your life is at the mercy of the vessel,” Macquarie University linguistics professor Ingrid Piller explains. “You name the vessel because it becomes your most important companion. You want to believe it has vested interest in keeping you safe—even though it truly has no interests at all.”
There are three primal reasons why we might anthropomorphize an object: The non-human subject looks like it has a face, we’d like to be friends with it, or we can’t explain its unpredictable behavior. By understanding how each of these triggers work, we can understand why this tendency is both essential to human survival and intelligence.
Humans brains have an exceptional ability to see faces. This instinct is essential for social life, since it helps us distinguish friends from potentially fatal predators. The ability to recognize and read faces therefore remains a crucial means of understanding and communicating emotions, thoughts, and intentions.
Because of our innate tendency to seek out and connect with people, this recognition sometimes spills over to our perceptions of non-human agents. As social beings, we’re constantly trying to decode what another being is thinking or going to do. We therefore have a tendency to endow an object that looks like it has eyes to also have a mind. “Fake eyes are a trick we fall for almost every time—one that can dupe us into seeing a mind where no mind exists,” Epley writes. “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.”
As this adorable video of a child mistaking a water heater with eye-like dials for a human shows, we are incredibly susceptible to this influence. Despite the physics-based explanation for smoke shapes after an explosion, many saw Satan’s face in the smoke after Flight 175 crashed into one of the Twin Towers on 9/11. When president George W. Bush later said “Today our nation saw evil,” this image served for many as literal proof.
Moreover, various studies prove the mere presence of eyes cue people to behave as if they are literally being watched. Most famously, studies at the University of Newcastle found that that when a poster with an image of eyes (rather than flowers) overlooked the university dining area, twice as many people cleaned up after themselves. In another experiment, when professors paid for tea and coffee using and honesty box, they paid three times more often when the box featured an image of eyes instead of flowers.
We tend to anthropomorphize the things we love, not the things we hate. Psychology agrees that the more we like someone or the closer we are to them, the more likely we are to engage with their mind. This proclivity extends to non-humans, too—regardless of whether they actually have a conscious mind.
This version of mind-attribution is at the root of many political topics. Societal debates over issues such as abortion (does a fetus have feelings?) and animal rights (do animals emotionally suffer in small cages?) often come down to anthropomorphization. Our feelings about these issues often hinge on what Epley calls “gray minds”—things that might have conscious minds similar to our own. Whether you anthropomorphize a fetus or an animal will affect your feelings on these issues.
For example, in a 2011 study, participants were shown photos of either baby or adult animals and then asked how much they liked the animal and how they would treat it if they owned it. Participants not only liked the cuter, baby animals more, but were also more likely to anthropomorphize these theoretical pets: They said they’d give them a name, talk to them, and would refer to them with gender pronouns.
Epley points out that the same phenomenon occurred in a survey of nearly 900 listeners of NPR’s radio show “Car Talk.”. The more people reported liking their car, the more likely they were to describe it as if it had a mind, beliefs, desires, and personality. When it came to how likely they were to anthropomorphize their vehicles, how much they loved their car exceeded other factors like how long they’d had it and how reliable it was.
This anthropomorphic drive for connection is part of the reason we analyze our pets’ “complex” mental states, the reason musicians deem their instruments close friends, and the reason why we, even as adults, would be upset if our favorite stuffed animal who knows us so well were thrown away. What’s more, the lonelier we are, the stronger this trigger becomes: Just think of Wilson, Tom Hanks’ beloved best friend—a volleyball with a face—in Castaway.
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.
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.