Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Anthropomorphism: A Tendency to be Feared or Favored?

            By: Elise Gilchrist

            Anthropormorphism, as defined by Wikipedia, is the attribution of a human form or characteristic to anything other than a human being. This term describes an age-old human tendency to define our world in ways relatable to our day-to-day lives. We have used human-like characteristics and descriptions when talking about ancient deities, describing weather patterns, and discussing our natural world along with the creatures that inhabit it. Have you ever seen two birds huddled next to each other and said “Awe, they look like they are in love”? Or have you had full conversations with your dog, maybe believing they understand a bit of what you are saying? And have you ever watched the chimpanzees at the zoo and marveled at how human-like they are? We have all done it; it is one of the many ways we relate to the very strange world surrounding us.

Is this dog happy or sad?

            Anthropomorphism however, is a phrase and tendency that is often frowned upon in the scientific community. Using language that suggests animals have emotions and even intentions often lacks objectivity. Scientists who study animal behavior have been warned to rely on what one observes, without equating intentionality to the actions. For example, when a scientist watches a dog wag its tail, the scientist describes such behavior as “the dog moved its tail back and forth in rapid succession,” as opposed to “the dog wagged its tail because it was happy to be reunited with its owner.” The latter, as you can see, is clearly less objective and implies an intention that is not necessarily true.
            This concept was more formally put into place with the onset of a field called behaviorism. This is an approach to psychology and animal behavior research that proclaims you should study observable behaviors of people and animals as opposed to the unobservable workings of the mind. One of the founding fathers of this field is the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner who was staunchly averse to attributing human-like emotions to any animal. Behaviorism emerged in the early twentieth century and its influences on scientific thought and research methods in psychology/animal behavior are still apparent. However, this strict behaviorist approach has started to dissipate. In recent years, fields devoted entirely to studying topics like animal personality and non-human empathy, have begun to emerge.

Are these elephants kissing?
            So the question is: is anthropomorphism, related to the field of animal behavior and conservation, inherently bad? To discuss this I want to bring forth a person whom advocates on both sides have clashed over, Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall is one of the world’s most famous primatologists, having spent decades studying the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild. When she started her research in Africa she had no formal scientific training, and for better or worse, no pre-conceived biases about how her work should be conducted or recorded. This means that Goodall did the unthinkable, she named the individuals she was studying.
            Naming your test subjects is another practice most behaviorists would frown upon. After all, giving human names to animals may bias you toward interpreting their behavior using human constructs and emotions. Jane Goodall’s work has been met with significant amounts of criticism over the years, particularly because she has never shied from attributing emotion and personality to the chimpanzees she studied. I will not argue the validity of her work, but I will present it in light of my own childhood experience. When I was young I was given a book called In the Shadow of Man, written by Jane Goodall. To this day, characters from the book like Fifi, David Greybeard and Flo, all still hold a very permanent place in my memory. The interesting thing about these characters is that none of them are human. Goodall’s best-selling books have done something no author had done before: they presented chimpanzee behavior in a way that was both memorable and relatable to most readers, regardless of their age or involvement in the scientific community.

Is this horse feeling joyful?

            Anthropomorphism is certainly a tricky subject and there are very good reasons that scientists should be wary of it when interpreting animal behavior. However, I would argue that it could be an effective tool when used to educate and enthrall a more general public. For I know that even after my own intensive undergraduate training in animal behavior, I cannot recall much about B.F. Skinner’s experiments, but I can still recount anecdotes about the amazing intellectual capacities of chimpanzees over a decade after reading Jane Goodall’s book. So, maybe attributing human characteristics, like names and personality traits, to non-human animals does in fact hold merit, at least when communicating science and engaging the general public in important conservation initiatives.

Is this bird comfortable in my hand?

            If any of our readers have opinions on this argument we would love to engage in a discussion. Please comment on this blog if you agree or disagree with the points I made above. It would be great to hear your take on this!

“Anthropomorphism” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 10 August 2014. Web.


  1. Hi there!

    Thank you for this article! I do have a modest opinion on the matter, being a student in psychology and interested in ethology.

    I thought it was widely accepted now that other animals are able to have those feelings and emotions, so I am a bit surprised that it is even a question still – but I am in no way an expert so I would be really interested in having a reply to this comment!

    You say "anthropomorphism, as defined by Wikipedia, is the attribution of a human form or characteristic to anything other than a human being" – and the rest of the article seems to only try to argue about whether or not attributing emotions and feelings to non-human animals fits that definition. (So sorry if I understood that wrong, English isn’t my first language.) On that matter, I would have two things to say:

    Firstly, it would only fit it if, in fact, they had no feelings or emotions – otherwise, it wouldn’t be only a human characteristic and hence, not anthropomorphism.

    Secondly, in response to “[s]cientists who study animal behavior have been warned to rely on what one observes, without equating intentionality to the actions” and “[According to behaviorism] you should study observable behaviors of people and animals as opposed to the unobservable workings of the mind”, I would say that equating intentionality to action is what we do every day with other members of our species. We all think, act and react on the premise that others feel and think (globally) the way we do, because that assumption is reasonable and realistic. Likewise, when a dog wags his tail in the same manner in situations we can reasonably assume brings it pleasure or at least commodity, I wouldn’t say it’s anthropomorphism so much as common sense. Of course, at one point, the Earth being flat would have appeared like common sense, and this is why questioning what seems simple and logical is always important. But objectivity can only bring us so far; for instance some behaviors are only observable if a close connection to the animal is established (I’m thinking of what French ethologist Pierre Jouventin’s observed of his “pet” wolf Kamala’s behavior when she considered one of the family/pack member in danger. He later wrote a book about it, making wolves’ altruistic tendencies more widely known).

    All in all, I don’t think the question should be about anthropomorphism, but more simply about whether or not we share some of our characteristics with other species and to which level.

    I hope I made sense and didn’t misunderstand the article completely! I apologize for any grammar/orthographic/other mistake I made.

    Have a very good day and thank you for sharing this reflexion and making me (try to) articulate my thoughts on the subject.

    Pauline F.

  2. PS: I think the horse in the picture looks curious (one ear forwards and one backward usually indicate a horse is paying attention to its surroundings, and it seems like he or she is stretching his head forwards to see or smell whatever he/she's interested in - probably the camera. It also looks very relaxed: head is low and limbs steady on the floor as opposed to contracted and ready to flee)

  3. The mistake with non human creatures (in my opinion) is that we look for and identify with only the most basic human emotions and mental states .. Animals feel and think on a much more complicated and deeper level perhaps this depends on their place in the food chain and how much time that gives them to think and feel.. Their moment to moment survival depends on their understanding of their surroundings. A non human animal's exhibited behaviour is completely honest and connected to their mental/emotional state, nothing is hidden and reactions are immediate.. In my opinion as a mere observer of life .. I do think we can compare anthropomorphically to begin the process simply because of obvious human limitations like the lack of knowledge of the range of emotions that exist in other animals leading to the inability to immediately grasp the deeper meanings of exhibited behaviour in animals.. Yet one must allow the findings to lead us to the deeper meanings and reasons for the exhibited behaviour in order to truly understand and learn more .. Because they are not human but we are all animals

  4. The fear of anthropomorphism is silliness. It is to deny the ability to see the richness of animal experiences by arbitrarily restraining our observations to the fantasy of "objectivity".

    It is well known that we can't even know what other people are experiencing and yet we have no problem in interpreting their actions and behaviors according to our own criteria. Therefore by what rationale can we argue that we make such an exception for humans but not animals?

    The only thing that needs to be considered is that we avoid assigning a human motivation to their actions. That would cross the line, because we would deny attempts to understand the animal on its own terms.

    We can all recognize if someone goes to far with an interpretation. After all, humans do it all the time with themselves. What does that mean when we want to claim "life after death", or some extra-sensory abilities, etc.

    Let's start recognizing that all living things have an objective to survive and reproduce. Some have more sophisticated mechanisms that they can apply, but they all universally have this need. Perhaps then we can stop being so narcissistic and begin to appreciate that all life is precious and unique.