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When We Need A Human: Motivational Determinants of Anthropomorphism

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We propose that the tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman agents is determined primarily by three factors (Epley, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2007), two of which we test here: sociality motivation and effectance motivation. This theory makes unique predictions about dispositional, situational, cultural, and developmental variability in anthropomorphism, and we test two predictions about dispositional and situational influences stemming from both of these motivations. In particular, we test whether those who are dispositionally lonely (sociality motivation) are more likely to anthropomorphize well-known pets (Study 1), and whether those who have a stable need for control (effectance motivation) are more likely to anthropomorphize apparently unpredictable animals (Study 2). Both studies are consistent with our predictions. We suggest that this theory of anthropomorphism can help to explain when people are likely to attribute humanlike traits to nonhuman agents, and provides insight into the inverse process of dehumanization in which people fail to attribute human characteristics to other humans.
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EPLEYET AL.Motivational Determinants
WHEN WE NEED A HUMAN:
MOTIVATIONAL DETERMINANTS
OF ANTHROPOMORPHISM
Nicholas Epley and Adam Waytz
University of Chicago
Scott Akalis
Harvard University
John T. Cacioppo
University of Chicago
We propose that the tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman agents is
determined primarily by three factors (Epley, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2007),
two of which we test here: sociality motivation and effectance motivation.
This theory makes unique predictions about dispositional, situational,
cultural, and developmental variability in anthropomorphism, and we
test two predictions about dispositional and situational influences stem-
ming from both of these motivations. In particular, we test whether those
who are dispositionally lonely (sociality motivation) are more likely to
anthropomorphize well–known pets (Study 1), and whether those who
have a stable need for control (effectance motivation) are more likely to
anthropomorphize apparently unpredictable animals (Study 2). Both
studies are consistent with our predictions. We suggest that this theory of
anthropomorphism can help to explain when people are likely to attribute
humanlike traits to nonhuman agents, and provides insight into the in-
verse process of dehumanization in which people fail to attribute human
characteristics to other humans.
Aristotle suggested that the only critical ingredient in the recipe for supreme happi-
ness was other people, and social psychologists more than 2,000 years younger
have provided empirical justification for this claim (Diener & Seligman, 2002). Peo-
ple need other humans in daily life for reasons ranging from the practical to the exis-
143
Social Cognition, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2008, pp. 143-155
This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (SES0241544) and the
John Templeton Foundation.
We thank Jasmine Kwong, Carlos Lozano, and Laura Meek for assistance with this research.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Nicholas Epley, University of Chi-
cago, 5807 South Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL 60637. E–mail: epley@chicagogsb.edu.
tential, and we suggest here that this need is so strong that people sometimes create
humans out of non–humans through a process of anthropomorphism. In particular,
we suggest that such inferential reproduction can be used to satisfy two basic needs
that other humans (or the concept of humans) can satisfy in everyday life—the need
for social connection (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and the need to experience compe-
tence (i.e., control and understanding of the environment; White, 1959). We derive
these claims from a more general theory of anthropomorphism (Epley, Waytz, &
Cacioppo, 2007), and spend the remainder of this article testing two predictions de-
rived from this theory and explaining why psychologists should care about
anthropomorphism.
WHAT ANTHROPOMORPHISM IS (NOT)
Perceiving humanlike characteristics in either real or imagined nonhuman agents is
the essence of anthropomorphism. These humanlike characteristics may include
physical appearance (such as a religious agent believed to look humanlike; Guthrie,
1993), emotional states perceived to be uniquely human (e.g. Leyens et al., 2003), or
inner mental states and motivations (Gray, Gray, & Wegner, 2007). Real or imag-
ined nonhuman agents can be anything that acts—or is believed to act—with appar-
ent independence, including nonhuman animals, natural forces, religious agents,
technological gadgets, or mechanical devices. Such anthropomorphic representa-
tions are important determinants of how a person behaves towards these agents (as
with nonhuman animals, for instance), or how a person may behave in light of these
agents (such as with guidance that people seek from anthropomorphized religious
agents).
Knowing what anthropomorphism includes requires only one minute spent
alone with a dictionary (readers are encouraged to take that minute now). More im-
portant for psychologists, however, is what it does not include, and it does not in-
clude at least four things. First, anthropomorphism does not include behavioral
descriptions of observable actions. Announcing that the snarling dog chewing on
one’s ankle is aggressive is a description of an observable action, and even the most
ardent Skinnerian would accept that there is no anthropomorphism in that state-
ment. Anthropomorphism requires going beyond what is directly observable to
make inferences about unobservable humanlike characteristics (such as stating that
the dog is vindictive; see also Semin & Fiedler, 1988).
Second, anthropomorphism does not merely entail animism. Piaget (1929) noted,
for instance, that children tend to see living agents almost wherever they look. But
animate life is not a uniquely human property. Although anthropomorphism en-
tails treating an agent as living, the former is not reducible to the latter.
Third, anthropomorphism does not include any requirement of reasoned or re-
flective endorsement of an inference. Like any belief or attitude, the strength of an-
thropomorphic inferences will vary from one domain or context to another
(variability that our theory is designed to predict). Religious believers frequently
speak of God’s will; cat owners describe their pets as conceited, and computer users
verbally scold and curse their technology when it fails to “cooperate” with them (a
practice reported by 79% and 73%, respectively, of PC users; Luczak, Roetting, &
Schmidt, 2003). These examples describe behavior consistent with anthropomor-
phism, but not all people in these instances will, upon conscious reflection, report
that the agent in question truly possesses humanlike characteristics. Strong forms of
144 EPLEY ET AL.
anthropomorphism (such as many religious beliefs) entail behaving towards an
agent as if it possessed humanlike traits along with conscious endorsement that the
agent actually possesses those traits, whereas weak forms (such as cursing one’s
computer) may only contain the weaker as-if component. This variability in
strength is the same kind of variability that occurs in the strength of any attitude
(Petty & Krosnick, 1995). A theory of anthropomorphism does not need to accept
one form or reject another, but it does need to explain both strong and weak forms
equally well.
Finally, anthropomorphism is not necessarily inaccurate. Everyday discourse,
scientific debates, and scholarly treatments of anthropomorphism have equated an-
thropomorphism with an overgeneralized error(e.g., Guthrie, 1993), and therefore
hinge on whether anthropomorphism actually represents a mistaken representa-
tion of a nonhuman agent. But considering an inference anthropomorphic only
when it is clearly a mistake is itself a mistake. Readers are encouraged to return to
their dictionaries for another minute and note that accuracy appears nowhere in the
definition of anthropomorphism. People conceive of gods, gadgets, and an entire
gaggle of nonhuman animals in humanlike terms. Although interesting, whether
such inferences are accurate is orthogonal to a psychological understanding of the
conditions under which people are likely to make an anthropomorphic inference. A
psychological theory of anthropomorphism should predict variability in the
tendency to perceive humanlike traits in nonhuman agents, and can leave questions
of accuracy for others to answer.
MOTIVATIONAL DETERMINANTS OF ANTHROPOMORPHISM
Due to the incessant focus on accuracy, much research on anthropomorphism has
actually overlooked a psychological explanation for the very phenomena in its
midst. Although anthropomorphism is arguably widespread (Guthrie, 1993;
Hume, 1757/1956), even the most casual observer of the human condition will no-
tice that it is far from invariant. Some people anthropomorphize more than others
(Chin, Sims, DaPra, & Ballion, 2006), some situations induce anthropomorphism
more than others (Epley, Akalis, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2008), children tend to
anthropomorphize more than adults (Carey, 1985), and some cultures are notorious
for their anthropomorphic religions and worldviews (Asquith, 1986). We provide
here a brief overview of a theory of anthropomorphism focusing on three critical de-
terminants designed to predict variability across the four major categories of opera-
tional influence in daily life—dispositional, situational, developmental, and
cultural (see Epley et al., 2007 for a more detailed description). We derive this theory
largely from work in social cognition investigating how people think about other
people.
Anthropomorphism represents just one of many examples of induction whereby
people reason about an unknown stimulus based on a better–known representation
of a related stimulus (Rips, 1975), in this case reasoning about a nonhuman agent
based on representations of the self or humans. The basic operations underlying in-
ductive inference are the acquisition of knowledge, the activation or elicitation of
knowledge, and the application of activated knowledge at the time of judgment
(Higgins, 1996). The application process includes attempts to correct, adjust, or inte-
grate less accessible information into a more automatically activated default repre-
sentation—a correction process that is often insufficient leaving final judgments
MOTIVATIONAL DETERMINANTS 145
biased in the direction of the initially activated representation (for examples see
Epley & Gilovich, 2006; Gilbert, 2002). Seeing humanlike attributes in nonhuman
agents is therefore likely to be determined by the relative accessibility and applica-
bility of anthropomorphic representations compared to nonanthropomorphic rep-
resentations, and the likelihood of correcting an anthropomorphic representation
once it is activated. How people perceive nonhuman agents therefore utilizes the
same mechanisms involved when people think about other people (see also Kwan,
Gosling, & John, 2008, this issue).
As part of a larger theory of anthropomorphism (Epley et al., 2007), we suggest
that two motivational factors are important determinants of anthropomorphism,
namely sociality and effectance motivation. Sociality motivation is the fundamental
need for social connection with other humans. When lacking social connection with
other humans, people may compensate by creating humans out of nonhuman
agents through anthropomorphism—increasing belief in anthropomorphized reli-
gious agents (e.g., God), or perceiving nonhumans to be more humanlike (e.g.,
pets). Those who are momentarily or chronically lonely should thus
anthropomorphize more than those who are connected. We test this hypothesis in
Study 1.
Other humans not only provide a sense of social connection, but the richly de-
tailed and readily accessible concept of “human” (or the self) can also serve as a use-
ful source of explanatory power for understanding, controlling, and predicting
another agent’s behavior. The concept of human or one’s own egocentric experience
is therefore likely to serve as a useful knowledge structure when reasoning about
nonhuman agents (in the same way that egocentrism is useful heuristic for reason-
ing about other people; Dawes & Mulford, 1996). Use of this heuristic, however,
should be moderated by one’s motivation to understand, control, and interact com-
petently in one’s environment. Such effectance motivation (White, 1959) is
strengthened by variables that increase the incentives for competence, such as a de-
sire for control or predictability, the possibility of future interactions, or strategic in-
teractions. Anthropomorphism can satisfy effectance motivation by providing a
sense of understanding and control of a nonhuman agent, and should therefore in-
crease as effectance motivation increases. Those who are particularly fond of feeling
in control of one’s environment, for instance, should be especially likely to
anthropomorphize in times of uncertainty. We test this hypothesis in Study 2.
These two motivational factors make unique predictions about how specific
dispositional, situational, developmental, and cultural variables will influence an-
thropomorphism. We believe these motivations are among the primary determi-
nants of anthropomorphism (and other important motivations may exist, see
Norenzayan, Hanson, & Cady, 2008, this issue), and certainly do not expect all in-
stances of motivated reasoning (e.g., motivated self–enhancement) to influence an-
thropomorphism. Our goal here is not to articulate all specific predictions (see
Epley et al., 2007, for such articulation), but rather to test directly a subset of
them—namely dispositional and situational predictions regarding sociality and
effectance motivation. Our theory of anthropomorphism is derived from work in
social cognition, and many of our predictions need to be tested directly. The
experiments here provide two such tests.
146 EPLEY ET AL.
STUDY 1—SOCIALITY MOTIVATION
Most readers will be well familiar with the stereotype of the introvert who be-
comes just a bit too enamored with her cat (those in the minority may visit
www.crazycatladies.org). Being disconnected from other people is not only un-
pleasant and uncomfortable (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), but it is unhealthy as well
(Cacioppo et al., 2002; House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988). Thankfully for one’s well
being, people are relatively clever in their ability to gain a sense of social connection
even in the complete absence of actual human agents. Television characters, photo-
graphs, and religious figures all appear to be effective surrogates for actual human
connection (Gardner, Pickett, & Knowles, 2005). Our hypotheses here, however, go
beyond predicting that chronic social isolation or disconnection will increase attrac-
tion or liking for nonhuman agents, and predict that such a chronic need for social
connection will alter the humanlike characteristics that people attribute to these
agents. In particular, we suggest that when people are chronically isolated they
make up humans by anthropomorphizing nonhuman agents—creating a sense of
social support through a kind of inferential reproduction. We tested this hypothesis
in Study 1 by asking people to evaluate familiar pets on anthropomorphic traits re-
lated to social connection, anthropomorphic traits unrelated to social connection,
and non–anthropomorphic traits. We predicted that dispositional loneliness would
increase the likelihood of anthropomorphizing one’s pet on traits related to social
connection.
METHOD
Participants
One hundred sixty–six Harvard University undergraduates completed this experi-
ment in exchange for a chance to win $50. Participants were recruited via e–mail for
a study investigating how people think about their pets and directed to an online
website where they completed all of the following measures. All participants were
current (or for 2% of cases, past) pet owners. The vast majority (96%) reported that
they were not currently living with the pet under consideration.
Procedure
All participants completed the 20–item UCLA loneliness scale (Russell, 1996), con-
sisting of items such as “I lack companionship,” “There is no one I can turn to,” and
“I feel alone.” One group of participants did so before, and the other group after,
completing the pet–rating items. On the critical pet–rating items, participants were
instructed to consider a series of 14 traits and asked to rank order them, from 1 being
most descriptive of their pets to 14 being the least descriptive. These included three
anthropomorphic traits related to providing social connection (thoughtful, consid-
erate, and sympathetic), four anthropomorphic traits unrelated to providing social
connection (embarrassable, creative, devious, and jealous), and seven non–anthro-
pomorphic traits that were simply behavioral descriptions (aggressive, agile, ac-
tive, energetic, fearful, lethargic, and muscular). We classified traits based on
existing research that identifies metacognition as a critical distinguishing feature
between traits seen as humanlike versus those shared by other living agents
MOTIVATIONAL DETERMINANTS 147
(Demoulin et al., 2004; Haslam, Bain, Douge, Lee, & Bastian, 2005). When finished,
participants were logged off of the website.
RESULTS
No effort was made to restrict variability in the pets participants considered, and
this sample included 99 dogs (of roughly half as many breeds), 48 cats (also of re-
portedly different breeds), and 19 “others” (11 fish, 2 lizards, 2 parrots, 1 chicken,
and 3 unspecified). Including pet type (dog, cat, “other”) did not reduce the signifi-
cance level of any of the following results, and is not discussed further.
To analyze these results, participants’ responses to the loneliness scale were first
reverse–scored where appropriate to obtain an overall measure of social disconnec-
tion. We next calculated the average rank given to the three anthropomorphic traits
related to social connection (α= .73), to the four anthropomorphic traits unrelated to
social connection (α= .09), and to the seven behavioral descriptors (after reverse
coding “lethargic," α= .57). The αlevels of these last two measures are unacceptably
low (due to being selected as unrelated or irrelevant to social connection), so we an-
alyzed both the composite rankings (for conceptual reasons) as well as the
individual rankings themselves in the following analyses.
As predicted, participants who felt more chronically disconnected provided
higher rankings of the supportive anthropomorphic traits than participants who
felt more socially connected, r(164) = – .18, p=.02. A similar correlation did not
emerge on the nonsupportive anthropomorphic traits, r(164) = .07, p=.37, nor
among the behavioral traits, r(165) = .03, p= .70. None of the individual items for ei-
ther the nonsupportive anthropomorphic traits or the behavioral traits approached
significance themselves after correcting for multiple comparisons (all ps>.2).
We interpret these results as consistent with our prediction that participants who
were chronically lonely would create agents of social support by anthropo-
morphizing their pets. That these correlational patterns emerged among only the
anthropomorphic items related to social connection suggests that participants may
be creating agents to satisfy their need for social connection. Of course, such
correlational results cannot attest to this causal connection, but we report similar re-
sults elsewhere in which manipulating a person’s sense of social connection in-
creases their tendency to again anthropomorphize their pets on traits related to
social connection (Epley et al., 2008). This convergent validity suggests that anthro-
pomorphism may serve a social connection function by creating humanlike agents
out of nonhumans.
One interesting possibility not addressed by this experiment is that people who
are chronically isolated or rejected from other people may prefer social connection
through nonhuman agents, such as religious agents or pets. People who are ostra-
cized by another person, for instance, tend to avoid or aggress toward that person
(Buckley, Winkel, & Leary, 2004; Twenge & Campbell, 2003) and seek connection
from other people (Maner, Dewall, Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007). A person who is
chronically isolated or disconnected from people may withdraw from attempts to
connect with other humans in general, and may instead seek connection with non-
human agents through a process of anthropomorphism. Study 1 did not compare
evaluations of the mental states or traits of other humans with nonhuman pets, and
it is at least possible that experiments that do so may reveal an interesting
asymmetry.
148 EPLEY ET AL.
STUDY 2—EFFECTANCE MOTIVATION
People anthropomorphize to satisfy sociality needs, but turning a nonhuman agent
into a human through a process of anthropomorphism can also fulfill a basic need
for understanding, control, and predictability. Charles Darwin (1872/2002) ar-
gued, for instance, that anthropomorphism was essential to progress in under-
standing other animals. So too did Hebb (1946) who noted the utter lack of
coherence that emerged when scientists studying with him at the Yerkes laboratory
tried to avoid using anthropomorphic descriptions of nonhuman primates. “What-
ever the anthropomorphic terminology may seem to imply about conscious states
in chimpanzee,” Hebb wrote, “it provides an intelligible and practical guide to
behavior” (p. 48).
Humans are generally motivated to feel competent through resolving uncer-
tainty, increasing predictability, and gaining a sense of control or efficacy over their
environment (White, 1959). Anthropomorphism may satisfy this “effectance moti-
vation” by providing a detailed knowledge structure that can be used to under-
stand a novel nonhuman agent. To the extent that people use the concept of self or
human to better understand a nonhuman agent, anthropomorphism should in-
crease when effectance motivation is high, and decrease when effectance motiva-
tion is low. Incentives to understand an agent’s behavior—such as being involved
in strategic interaction with another agent (Berger & Douglas, 1981; Berscheid,
Graziano, Monson, & Dermer, 1976), interacting with an apparently unpredictable
agent (Barrett & Johnson, 2003), or having a high “need for control” (Burger &
Cooper, 1979)—should increase effectance motivation and anthropomorphism, as
well.
We investigated this prediction in Study 2 by asking participants to watch a short
and mundane video clip of two dogs interacting with each other. One of these dogs
appeared less predictable than the other(one was small, quick, and seemingly un-
predictable, whereas the other was large, slow, and relatively predictable), and we
expected this lack of predictability would induce more anthropomorphic infer-
ences about the less predictable dog. In addition, we expected that those who were
chronically high in effectance motivation—namely those high in Desire for Control
(Burger & Cooper, 1979)—would tend to anthropomorphize more than those low in
chronic effectance motivation. It is also theoretically possible that Desire for Control
could interact with the predictability manipulation rather than just producing an
independent main effect, and we did not have a clear a priori prediction about which
particular pattern would emerge.
We conducted a pilot study to ensure that the two dogs shown on the video varied
in their apparent predictability and controllability. Participants in this study (N =
54) watched the video two separate times, being instructed to pay attention to the
smaller dog during the first viewing and the larger dog during the second viewing.
When finished, participants rated how predictable each dog would be in a future in-
teraction on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all predictable) to 7 (completely predict-
able), and how easy each dog would be to control on a scale ranging from 1 (easy) to
7 (difficult). As predicted, the smaller dog was rated as less predictable than the
larger dog, Ms = 3.07 vs. 5.43, respectively, paired t(53) = 8.98, p<.0001, and also as
more difficult to control, Ms = 4.57 vs. 3.54, respectively, paired t(53) = 3.13, p<.004.
MOTIVATIONAL DETERMINANTS 149
PROCEDURE
Visitors to the Decision Research Lab at the University of Chicago (N= 132) partici-
pated in exchange for $5. Participants were told they would be taking part in a study
on “attribution and interaction” and completed all parts of the study on MediaLab
computer software. Participants first completed the 20–item Desirability of Control
measure (Burger & Cooper, 1979) that asked participants to evaluate items such as,
“I prefer a job where I have a lot of control over what I do and when I do it” on scales
ranging from 1 (The statement does not apply to me at all) to 7 (The statement al-
ways applies to me). Responses from these twenty items (reverse scored where ap-
propriate) were summed to calculate participants’ desire for control score (α= .81).
The resulting distribution was platykurtic, so we conducted a median split on these
totals in order to categorize participants as high in desire for control (high–DC, n=
65) or low in desire for control (low–DC, n= 67), and to easily submit these results to
an ANOVA analysis.
Participants next viewed the video clip used in the pilot study. Participants
watched this video twice following the same procedure as in the pilot study. When
finished watching the video, approximately one–third of participants simply con-
tinued to the critical dependent measures, whereas the remaining participants were
asked to imagine that, after the experiment, one of the dogs (approximately
one-third told the large dog, and the remaining told the small dog) would be
brought into the lab so that they could interact with the dog and attempt to teach it a
trick. This variable did not influence the results in any meaningful way and is
therefore not discussed further.
Participants were then asked to evaluate both dogs on three items related to an-
thropomorphism: the extent to which each dog was aware of its emotions, has a con-
scious will, and has a “personality,” on scales ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very
much). Finally, participants were asked to rate the dog on its similarity to other life
forms on a scale ranging from 1 (bacteria) to 11 (human).
RESULTS
The four anthropomorphism ratings were highly intercorrelated (α= .78 and .80 for
the small dog and large dog, respectively) and were therefore standardized and col-
lapsed into a single composite for all of the following analyses.
A 2 (dog: unpredictable vs. predictable) ×2 (desire for control: high vs. low)
ANOVA on the composite anthropomorphism measure revealed a predicted main
effect for dog, such that participants rated the unpredictable dog (M= .12) higher on
the composite than the predictable dog (M= –.12), F( 1, 130) = 11.50, p=.001. A main
effect of desire for control also emerged such that high–DC participants rated both
dogs higher on the anthropomorphism composite (M= .15) than did low–DC par-
ticipants (M= –.14), F( 1, 130) = 6.45, p=.01. Interestingly, these main effects were
qualified by a dog ×desire for control interaction, F( 1, 130) = 3.84, p=.052. The dif-
ference in evaluations of the predictable versus unpredictable dog was especially
large among high–DC people, F( 1, 130) = 14.10, p<.0001, and high–DC individuals
anthropomorphized the unpredictable dog more than low–DC individuals, F( 1,
130) = 11.78, p=.001 (see Figure 1). Neither of the other simple effects were signifi-
cant (both ps>.3).
150 EPLEY ET AL.
These results are consistent with our predictions about how effectance motiva-
tion may influence anthropomorphism, and provided a test of both dispositional
and situational influences on anthropomorphism. An interaction emerged here be-
tween Desire for Control and the apparent predictability of the stimulus, suggest-
ing that the dispositional tendency to seek understanding and control is facilitated
by a stimulus that enables anthropomorphism. As with Study 1, of course,
dispositional measures cannot isolate the cause of this effect, and experimental ma-
nipulations of effectance motivation are needed to clearly isolate its causal influ-
ence. We therefore find these results to be encouraging evidence of the role of
effectance motivation as a determinant of anthropomorphism, and are currently
conducting studies that experimentally manipulate effectance to provide
convergent support for this notion (Waytz, Cacioppo, & Epley, 2008).
GENERAL DISCUSSION
Human beings have been thinking about nonhuman agents for every bit as long as
they have been thinking about other humans, and yet scientific understanding of
the latter vastly outstrips understanding of the former. This may appear perfectly
acceptable. Whether people believe their pets are thoughtful, their PCs vindictive,
or speak of their plants as “wanting” sunlight hardly seems the kind of intellectual
puzzle that would spark a stampede of psychologists to search for explanations.
Whether people recognize these humanlike traits in other people, however, is the
stuff of love and war. A journal like Social Cognition should therefore be filled with
experiments investigating people’s thoughts about other people, and so it has been
for every issue before this one.
MOTIVATIONAL DETERMINANTS 151
FIGURE 1. Anthropomorphism ratings for the predictable and unpredictable dog from partici-
pants high and low in Desire for Control (Study 2). Data are reported in
z
-scores. Larger num-
bers indicate greater anthropomorphism.
But readers who share this assessment should think more carefully about why
studying anthropomorphism is worth one’s time before dismissing it completely,
and we think it is well worth our time for at least four reasons. First, it’s not clear that
understanding how people think about relatively trivial agents such as pets or their
computers is actually all that trivial. nonhuman agents, from dogs to gods, serve as
a source of social connection, and the link between connection to these nonhuman
agents and one’s health and well–being is well documented (Serpell, 1991, 2003).
Computer scientists charged with enabling computer users to learn from their
products have begun utilizing anthropomorphism by creating interfaces that look
and act humanlike. Such interfaces appear to facilitate learning compared to less
humanlike interfaces (Moreale & Watt, 2004). And marketers utilize anthropomor-
phism to peddle products ranging from movies to motor parts (Aggarwal & McGill,
2007; Guthrie, 1993). Understanding how people think about even relatively mun-
dane nonhuman agents can have wide–ranging—and potentially very impor-
tant—implications (for some examples see Chartrand, Fitzsimmons, Fitzsimons,
2008, this issue, Gardner & Knowles, 2008, this issue, and Kiesler, Powers, Fussell,
& Torrey, 2008, this issue).
Second, it is important to remember that the agents prone to anthropomorphism
also includes religious agents that the vast majority of the world’s population
uses—or purports to use—as a moral compass. Thinking that one’s dog is jealous is
one thing, but thinking that one’s god is jealous is quite another(see Morewedge &
Clear, 2008, this issue). And yet the psychological processes that lead to these infer-
ences should be identical in both cases. Indeed, we report elsewhere that experi-
mentally induced feelings of loneliness not only increase anthropomorphism for
one’s pets (in an experiment similar to Study 1), but also increase belief in religious
agents such as God and Angels as well (Epley et al., 2008). Xenophenes (6th century
B.C.) was the first person to use the term anthropomorphism, and did so when noting
the similarity in appearance between gods and their human followers. Understand-
ing how this anthropomorphic process works with religious agents has advanced
surprisingly little since that time. In a world long populated by explicit and
powerful religious fundamentalism, such understanding seems long overdue.
Third, seeing a nonhuman agent as humanlike not only entails the attribution of
humanlike characteristics, but it also carries the consequence of moral agency. Con-
sciousness, intention, desire, and regret are all the very sorts of humanlike emotions
that turn nonhuman agents into moral agents. It is no accident that environmental-
ists refer to “mother earth,” for instance, and that appeals for animal rights often
hinge on the reality of animal suffering. Anthropomorphizing at least some nonhu-
man agents creates an agent that deserves concern for its own well–being. Such
agents are not just represented as humanlike, but are also more likely to be treated
as humanlike.
Finally, understanding anthropomorphism should provide precious insight into
the inverse process of dehumanization, whereby people fail to attribute humanlike
characteristics to other humans and think of them as nonhuman agents (see
Boccato, Capozza, Falvo, & Durante, 2008, this issue and Haslam, Kashima,
Loughnan, Shi, & Suitner, 2008, this issue). The theory we have sketched here, and
describe in greater detail elsewhere (Epley et al., 2007), can also be used to make pre-
dictions about when people will dehumanize other people and when they will not.
For instance, feeling socially isolated increases the search for sources of social con-
nection and increases anthropomorphism. Applied to dehumanization, feeling a
152 EPLEY ET AL.
tight social connection to other humans should satisfy one’s sociality motivation
and therefore predict greater dehumanization among those who are highly con-
nected. It is well–known that having a well–defined and highly connected ingroup
facilitated dehumanization of an out–group (e.g., Leyens et al., 2003), and we have
found in one recent experiment that those asked to think about of a close friend de-
humanized outgroup members more than those asked to think about a distant ac-
quaintance (Waytz, Epley, & Cacioppo, 2007). So too, we predict, should effectance
motivation influence dehumanization. When incentives for understanding are re-
duced (no anticipated future interaction, highly predictable behavior, etc.), dehu-
manization should increase. Understanding anthropomorphism does more than
increase understanding of how people think about nonhuman agents. It increases
understanding of when people see humans in the environment and when they do
not, both for better and for worse.
For these reasons we think an understanding of how people think about nonhu-
man agents in general, and an understanding of anthropomorphism in particular, is
both long overdue and of central importance to psychologists interested in social
cognition. We have outlined here two motivational determinants that can predict
and explain when people are likely to attribute humanlike characteristics to nonhu-
man agents, and have provided two experiments that test predictions about moti-
vational determinants of this anthropomorphic process. We believe that the long
tradition of research in social cognition has already provided many of the pieces
needed to solve this intellectual puzzle of anthropomorphism. What is needed now
is some focused attention, systematic thought, and well–reasoned assembly.
MOTIVATIONAL DETERMINANTS 153
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Thesis
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