RUNNING HEAD: Social Cognition Unbound
Social Cognition Unbound: Insights into Anthropomorphism and Dehumanization
, Nicholas Epley
, John T. Cacioppo
University of Chicago
Department of Psychology
Northwest Science Building
52 Oxford St
Cambridge, MA 02138
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People conceive of wrathful gods, fickle computers, and selfish genes, attributing
human characteristics to a variety of supernatural, technological, and biological agents.
This tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman agents figures prominently in domains
ranging from religion to marketing to computer science. Perceiving an agent to be
humanlike has important implications for whether the agent is capable of social
influence, accountable for its actions, and worthy of moral care and consideration. Three
primary factors—elicited agent knowledge, sociality motivation, and effectance
motivation—appear to account for a significant amount of variability in
anthropomorphism. Identifying these factors that lead people to see nonhuman agents as
humanlike also sheds light on the inverse process of dehumanization, whereby people
treat human agents as animals or objects. Understanding anthropomorphism can
contribute to a more expansive view of social cognition that applies social psychological
theory to a wide variety of both human and nonhuman agents.
Keywords: anthropomorphism, dehumanization, mind perception, social cognition,
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Ask your favorite demographer to tell you something about human population
expansion over the course of history and they will probably show you a graph of
exponential growth that appears likely—any moment now—to overwhelm the planet.
Look around. People seem to be everywhere. But look harder and you will notice even
more humanlike agents in the environment, from pets that can seem considerate and
caring, to gods that have goals and plans for one’s life, to computers than can seem to
have minds of their own. People show an impressive capacity to create humanlike
agents—a kind of inferential reproduction—out of those that are clearly nonhuman.
People ask invisible gods for forgiveness, talk to their plants, kiss dice to persuade a
profitable roll, name their cars, curse at unresponsive computers, outfit their dogs with
unnecessary sweaters, and consider financial markets to be “anxious” at one moment and
“delirious” the next. This process of anthropomorphism is a critical determinant of how
people understand and treat nonhuman agents from gods to gadgets to the stock market,
is central to multibillion dollar industries such as robotics and pet care, and features
prominently in public debates ranging from the treatment of Mother Earth to abortion
We suggest unbinding research on social cognition from its historic focus on how
people understand other people. Studying how people understand other agents—whether
human or not—dramatically broadens the scope of psychological theory and investigation
to address when people attribute humanlike capacities to other agents and when they do
Why Anthropomorphism Matters
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Anthropomorphism goes beyond providing purely behavioral or dispositional
descriptions of observable actions (such as noting that a coyote is fast or aggressive); it
involves attributing characteristics that people intuitively perceive to be uniquely human
to nonhuman agents or events. Some people reported, for instance, seeing not only the
face of the devil in the smoke from the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
but the evil intentions and goals of the devil behind the attacks as well.
Anthropomorphism therefore includes both physical features, such as perceiving a
religious agent in a humanlike form, and mental capacities that people believe are
uniquely human, such as the capacity to have conscious awareness, possess explicit
intentions, or experience secondary emotions (e.g., joy, pride, shame, guilt). The inverse
process of anthropomorphism is dehumanization, whereby people fail to attribute
humanlike capacities to other humans and treat them like nonhuman animals or objects.
The Khmer Rouge, for instance, described their victims as “worms,” Nazi propaganda
depicted Jews as vermin, and Rwandan Hutus described the Tutsi as “cockroaches.”
The Greek philosopher Xenophanes was the first to use the term
anthropomorphism when describing the striking similarity between religious believers
and their gods, with Greek gods having fair skin and blue eyes and African gods having
dark skin and brown eyes. Psychologists 27 centuries later are only now beginning to
study such anthropomorphisms seriously, illuminating phenomena ranging from religious
belief to animal domestication to artificial intelligence as well as the inverse process of
dehumanization. Neuroscience demonstrates that similar brain regions are involved when
reasoning about the behavior of both human and nonhuman agents (Gazzola, Rizzolatti,
Wicker, & Keysers, 2007), suggesting that anthropomorphism is guided by the same
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processes involved when thinking about other people. Cognitive and developmental
psychology have examined both the pervasiveness and the limits of using the base
concept “human” to reason about nonhuman stimuli such as biological kinds (Waxman &
Medin, 2007) and religious agents (Barrett & Keil, 1996; Guthrie, 1993; Shtulman,
2008). And social psychology has examined the ways in which people are likely both to
humanize nonhuman agents and to dehumanize out-group members or particular
This relatively recent surge of interest in anthropomorphism is driven by an
appreciation of its wide-ranging implications and behavioral consequences. For instance,
anthropomorphized agents become responsible for their own actions and therefore
deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward (Gray, Gray, & Wegner, 2007).
When a bell in Mexico City’s famous Cathedral, Catedral Metropolitana, struck and
killed a bell ringer, for example, the congregation punished the bell, tying it down for 50
years. Agents that are capable of judgment, intention, and feeling are also capable of
directing their judgment, intentions, and feelings toward us, and therefore become agents
of social influence. Thinking about a judgmental God tends to increase prosocial
behavior towards others (Norenzayan & Shariff, 2008), and questionnaires presented on
computers with humanlike faces increase socially desirable responding (Sproull,
Subramani, Kiesler, Walker, & Waters, 1996).
Perhaps the most important implication of anthropomorphism is that perceiving
an agent to be human renders it worthy of moral care and consideration (Gray et al.,
2007). Recent environmental legislation in Ecuador, Switzerland, and the state of
Pennsylvania, for example, has granted legal rights to natural entities such as plants and
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rivers based on anthropomorphic inferences that these stimuli possess internal experience
and can feel pain and pleasure. It is no accident, we assume, that environmental activists
frequently speak of “Mother Earth” when trying to encourage more environmentally
responsible behavior. Anthropomorphizing an agent not only leads people to represent it
as humanlike but to treat it as humanlike as well.
Psychological research on anthropomorphism has developed slowly because it has
long focused on the accuracy of anthropomorphic inferences. But whether a pet, a god, or
a computer really possesses anthropomorphic traits is orthogonal to the psychological
processes leading people to make such inferences in some circumstances and not in
others. A psychological theory of anthropomorphism should instead explain and predict
variability in this process. A recent theory we have developed identifies three primary
determinants—one cognitive and two motivational—to explain important aspects of
situational, developmental, cultural, and dispositional sources of variability in
anthropomorphism (Epley, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2007).
This theory recognizes anthropomorphism as a basic process of inductive
inference. The primary cognitive determinant of anthropomorphism is therefore the
extent to which knowledge of humans (or the self in particular) is elicited or activated.
Anthropomorphism involves using existing knowledge about the self or the concept
“human” to make an inference about a relatively unknown nonhuman agent, and factors
that increase the accessibility and applicability of this knowledge therefore increase
anthropomorphism. For instance, the more similar an agent is to a human in either its
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movements or its physical appearance, the more likely it is to be anthropomorphized
(e.g., Morewedge, Preston, & Wegner, 2007).
Two motivational states can also increase the extent to which people either seek
humanlike agency or use themselves or the concept “human” as an inductive base when
reasoning about other agents. The first is the basic motivation for social connection.
Lacking social connection with other humans may lead people to seek connections with
other agents and, in so doing, create humanlike agents of social support. In one extreme
case, a British woman named Emma, living a solitary existence and fearing rejection
from other people, fell in love with a hi-fi system that she named Jake. Others have taken
to “marrying” objects of anthropomorphized affection such as the Eiffel Tower or the
Berlin Wall. In less extreme cases, those who are chronically lonely are more likely than
those who are chronically connected to anthropomorphize technological gadgets, and
experimentally inducing loneliness increases the tendency to anthropomorphize one’s pet
and to believe in commonly anthropomorphized religious agents (such as God or angels;
Epley, Akalis, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2008). It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that a
considerable market has developed for robots that can create a sense of social connection,
including uncanny androids that simulate a human hug and Paro, a personalized robotic
seal that costs upwards of $4,700.
The second motivational factor that may increase anthropomorphism is
effectance—the basic motivation to be a competent social agent. Lacking certainty,
predictability, or control leads people to seek a sense of mastery and understanding over
their environments. Given the overwhelming number of biological, technological, and
supernatural agents that people encounter on a daily basis, one way to attain some
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understanding of these often-incomprehensible agents is to use a very familiar concept
(that of the self or other humans) to make these agents and events more comprehensible.
Increasing effectance motivation, either measured as an individual difference in
the desire for control or experimentally increasing the sense of unpredictability, therefore
also increases people’s tendency to anthropomorphize robots, gadgets, and nonhuman
animals (Waytz et al., 2009). This strategy seems to be somewhat effective—in one
study, those instructed to provide anthropomorphic descriptions of various stimuli (e.g. a
dog, a robot, an alarm clock, a set of shapes) reported that those stimuli seemed more
predictable and understandable than did those who were instructed to provide
nonanthropomorphic descriptions of the same stimuli (Waytz, et al., 2009). Indeed, the
World Meteorological Organization notes that the naming of hurricanes and storms—a
practice that originated with the names of saints, sailors’ girlfriends, and disliked political
figures—simplifies and facilitates effective communication to enhance public
preparedness, media reporting, and the efficient exchange of information.
Dehumanization: A Theoretical Inversion
Anthropomorphism is the process of representing nonhuman agents as humanlike,
whereas dehumanization appears to be the inverse process. Dehumanization entails
representing human agents as nonhuman objects or animals and hence denying them
human-essential capacities such as thought and emotion. Inverting a theory of
anthropomorphism may therefore provide insights into dehumanization. For instance, just
as increased similarity to the self or humans increases the tendency to anthropomorphize
a nonhuman agent, so too does decreased similarity increase the tendency to dehumanize
other people. Consistent with this prediction, socially distant out-groups are frequently
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dehumanized, and those that are seen as the most dissimilar, such as drug addicts and
homeless people, are also the most likely to be dehumanized (e.g. Harris & Fiske, 2006).
Countless examples of interethnic dehumanization, from discrimination against Gypsies
across Europe to enslavement of African Americans in early America, may stem in part
from perceptions of the minority group as fundamentally dissimilar to the self or to one’s
Sociality appears to have a similarly inverse effect on anthropomorphism and
dehumanization. Lonely people seek other humans just as hungry people seek food. A
person who feels socially connected may therefore lack the motivation to actively seek
out humanlike agents for social connection. If feeling isolated increases the tendency to
anthropomorphize nonhuman agents, then feeling socially connected may likewise
increase the tendency to dehumanize other people—that is, to fail to attribute basic
features of personhood to other people. Consistent with this prediction, participants in
one experiment who were experimentally induced to feel socially connected were more
likely to deny humanlike mental states to others and to endorse dehumanizing violence
(Waytz & Epley, 2009). Historical examples of dehumanization, such as ongoing
violence between the Palestinians and Israelis, the Nazis’ persecution of Jews during the
Holocaust, and torture at Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq, also suggest that perpetrators of
dehumanization are often members of a socially cohesive in-group acting against an out-
group. Social connection may have many benefits for a person’s own health and well-
being but may have unfortunate consequences for intergroup relations by enabling
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Finally, effectance motivation should exhibit a similarly inverse relationship such
that decreasing the need to interact effectively with others should increase
dehumanization. One major factor that increases independence and decreases the need for
effective interaction with other people is having power over others. One recent set of
experiments demonstrated that being in a position of power increased the tendency to
objectify subordinates, treating them as a means to one’s own end rather than focusing on
their essentially human qualities (Gruenfeld, Inesi, Magee, & Galinsky, 2008). Gender
differences in power also contribute to female objectification in domains ranging from
pornography (that emphasizes women’s physical, not mental, attributes) to the practice of
dowry exchange (that determines a bride’s “worth” in property terms) in particularly
Together, these findings suggest a potentially shared process of humanization that
operates regardless of whether the target of judgment is a human or nonhuman agent.
Recognizing this continuity across targets may help to bring together research literatures
that have historically been studied in isolation.
Humanness is not a binary quality but a continuum. For many agents, their
placement on this continuum is both ambiguous and critical for determining their moral
standing. For example, in some states in America, controversial legislation requires that a
woman view the ultrasound image of her fetus before being able to have an abortion. This
law has provoked criticism that the mere presentation of this image humanizes the fetus,
consequently biasing women against an abortion (Sanger, 2008). By similar logic, a
recent study showed that subtle humanization of medical patients appears to improve care
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for these patients. Radiologists evaluating X-rays reported more details to patients and
expressed more empathy when a photo of the patient’s face accompanied the X-rays
(Turner & Hadas-Halpern, 2008). One doctor praised the study’s importance because
advances in technology have dehumanized the patient and this simple addition of a
photograph appears to counteract that dehumanization.
Whereas humanizing an agent increases that agent’s moral worth, dehumanizing
others licenses wrongdoing toward them. Research has demonstrated that dehumanization
facilitates aggression, endorsement of violence toward an out-group, and justification for
past wrongdoing (see Haslam, 2006, for review). Recently, an effort to revitalize New
Delhi, India by bulldozing its slums left countless people homeless, inspiring one victim
to say, “It's like we were picked up and thrown away” (Sidner, 2009). Dehumanization
has no doubt contributed to numerous acts of violence and aggression throughout history
as well as to more mundane everyday wrongdoings, such as making a sexist remark or
ignoring a homeless person on the sidewalk. The consequences of being perceived as
nonhuman are serious, and the same rights conferred to animals, plants, or rivers through
anthropomorphism can be denied to people.
In the 2008 California state election, citizens voted to pass Proposition 2, which
required farm animals to be kept in less restricting confines, and also Proposition 8,
which denied to homosexual couples marriage privileges that had already been granted
within the state. This vote to simultaneously treat farm animals more humanely but
homosexual couples less humanely is an example of the ways in which both
anthropomorphism and dehumanization may affect everyday life in both practical and
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important ways. Proponents of Proposition 8 invoked the humanlike “will of God” as a
justification for denying marriage rights to homosexuals, even suggesting that allowing
homosexuals to marry might open the door for humans to marry robots. Opponents of
Proposition 8 noted that banning homosexual marriage was as absurd as prohibiting
interracial marriage (still illegal until 1967 in some states), itself a clear example of the
long history of dehumanization toward non-Whites.
The emerging research on anthropomorphism and dehumanization provides a
theoretical account of these underlying processes, addresses the basic ways in which
people are likely to represent others in terms of basic human capacities and rights, and
documents the important consequences that result from this representation. Few social
perceivers have difficulty identifying other humans in a biological sense, but it is much
more complicated to identify them in a psychological sense.
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Address correspondence to Adam Waytz, Harvard University, Northwest Science
Building, 52 Oxford St, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail: email@example.com,
firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.
Epley, N., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2007). (See References). An article describing
the most recent psychological theory of anthropomorphism’s primary
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306. A paper providing a
clear example of dehumanization in an interracial context that uses both archival
and empirical data.
Guthrie, S. (1993). (See References). A comprehensive review of anthropomorphism-
related phenomena that uses anthropomorphism to explain religion.
Haslam, N. (2006). (See References). The most recent psychological treatment of
dehumanization, identifying two essential modes of dehumanization.
Kwan, V.S.Y., & Fiske, S.T. (2008). Missing links in social cognition: The continuum
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An overview to a special issue of the journal, Social Cognition, devoted to
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