What Is Anthropomorphism? | Definition & Examples
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, feelings, and behaviors to inanimate objects, nonhuman animals, or nature. Anthropomorphism can occur consciously or unconsciously and is a common way people perceive the world.
Although anthropomorphic thinking is an innate human tendency, it can cause us to misunderstand natural phenomena or animal behavior.
What is anthropomorphism?
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of distinctively human characteristics to nonhuman entities. The word “anthropomorphism” derives from the Greek root words “anthropos” (“human”) and “morphe” (“form”).
Originally, anthropomorphism was the ascription of human traits, like physical characteristics or feelings, to deities. Today, anthropomorphism has a broader meaning and involves perceiving inanimate objects, animals, and natural phenomena as possessing human characteristics, personalities, and intentions (for example, people often give hurricanes and storms human names).
In science, machines and robots are often described in terms of human behavior, and anthropomorphism is applied intentionally in AI assistants like Alexa and online chatbots to make them more user friendly.
Anthropomorphism is also used as a literary device in art, literature, and film to create relatable characters (e.g., the droids in Star Wars) or to tell an allegorical story (e.g., George Orwell’s Animal Farm).
Why do we use anthropomorphism?
Anthropomorphism is common for several reasons:
- We make inferences based on ourselves. Anthropomorphism helps us make sense of the world around us. When we encounter an unknown situation, we tend to explain it by drawing on what we know best (i.e., our knowledge about humans). For instance, pet owners often believe that their pet did something bad “on purpose” or that it feels “guilty.”
- We try to cope with threatening situations. For example, in the context of natural disasters, phrases like “nature is sending us a message” and “nature always strikes back” portray nature as vengeful, which is a human trait. By doing so, humans attribute meaning to natural events.
- We are social species. Anthropomorphism can fulfill our social need for companionship. When we attribute familiar emotions or attitudes to nonhuman entities, it’s easier for us to feel connected to them. One example of this is the use of social robots as companions for elderly people.
- It is used as a creative technique. Writers use anthropomorphism to create vivid characters and tell stories that are relatable and engaging. Anthropomorphism is also commonly used in fables and myths to help convey moral lessons, cultural values, and complex ideas in a format that is both entertaining and easily comprehensible.
Anthropomorphism vs. personification
The terms “anthropomorphism” and “personification” are often used interchangeably. However, they are distinct literary devices.
- Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics, emotions, or intentions to nonhuman entities or objects. For example, the anthropomorphic animals in The Jungle Book have their own personalities, thoughts, and emotions.
- Personification is a type of figurative language. Abstract qualities, animals, or inanimate objects are described as having human traits. For example, the sentence “the wind whispered through the leaves” personifies the wind because it describes it as having the human ability to whisper.
With anthropomorphism, the application of human traits is literal. However, with personification, it is metaphorical.
Anthropomorphism is a common literary device not only in children’s stories and fairy tales but also novels.
Anthropomorphism in literature
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is set in a fantasy world inhabited by various anthropomorphic animals, such as the hookah-smoking Caterpillar.
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, farm animals exhibit human characteristics like resilience and pride.
Anthropomorphism in pop culture
Anthropomorphic characters also often appear in pop culture because they are likable and relatable.
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Frequently asked questions
- What is the opposite of anthropomorphism?
The opposite of anthropomorphism is dehumanization. It is the process whereby people fail to attribute human-like characteristics to other humans and treat them like nonhuman animals or objects.
Dehumanization involves describing members of a particular outgroup as less sentient and civilized than the members of an ingroup, and thus not worthy of humane treatment. A typical strategy is referring to the targets of prejudice as “vermin” or “animals.”
- Why is anthropomorphism problematic?
Although anthropomorphism helps us view other animals with compassion, it can also be problematic. By attributing human traits to nonhuman animals, our understanding of their needs and behaviors becomes biased. This can lead to several problems, including:
- Behavioral problems. People may project their own assumptions and conclude that animals act out of malice or spite when they are simply following their instincts.
- Welfare problems. Anthropomorphism can also lead people to overfeed their pets, provide them with unsuitable foods (e.g., vegan diets), or compromise their health by dressing them with clothes.
Anthropomorphism can create unrealistic expectations for animals and missed opportunities for understanding their actual behaviors.
- Is anthropomorphism allowed in APA style?
In academic writing, anthropomorphism results in ambiguous and imprecise phrasing and thus should be avoided. Although APA style recommends avoiding anthropomorphism, it also notes that if a construction is in widespread use and its meaning is unambiguous, it does not constitute anthropomorphism.
The best approach is to familiarize yourself with acceptable phrasings by reading academic articles. For example, the phrase “the study found that …” may be anthropomorphic since the study cannot find anything, only researchers can. However, it is an acceptable phrase in academic writing.
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