Good news Chatty Kathys of the interwebs, all that blabbering you do to you dog and your cat and your refrigerator might not be a sign of your lunacy after all! Talking to your dog or any other, non-human object or animal is actually very cool. In fact, it might mean you’re one smart cookie.
What you’re doing is called anthropomorphism which means attributing human characteristics to inanimate objects, animals, plants, or God. Most people think this “stage” of life ought to be outgrown by about the time we head to high school because it seems childish and immature but most people can kick rocks!
There’s nothing wrong with anthropomorphizing things and it’s a centuries old practice. Why do you think boats way older than the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria have names? According to Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, anthropomorphism is “a natural byproduct of the tendency that makes humans uniquely smart on this planet.” Human beings are programmed to see and perceive minds which is why we anthropomorphize things without even realizing it. Aside from naming your cat something extremely human like Lauren, identifying its behavior as “sassy” is a means of imposing human characteristics. Similarly, saying a device has “a mind of its own” when it goes haywire serves the same purpose. There are three primal explanations for why we do this.
The first explanation for our knack for anthropomorphizing is related to humans’ ability to see faces and attempts to decode what others are thinking. You know those memes featuring a coat hook in a bathroom stall that looks like a drunk octopus? That’s not an drunk octopus, it’s science’s sense of humor. Epley basically says anything with eyes is fair game for anthropomorphism because we want it to have a mind we an connect with.
After naming anything with eyes, the second explanation for our behavior has to do with humans’ tendency to anthropomorphize the things we like and want to be friends with. The more we like someone, the more we want to engage with their brain, an idea that also applies to non-human objects. It’s why drivers who like their cars are more likely to assign their car a mind, beliefs, and a personality. We just want to feel connected!
Finally, in our minds, unpredictability equates to “human” so when something behaves in a surprising way, we think it’s just like us! For example, when your car won’t start so you scold it for being so stubborn, then try to sweet talk it into giving you what you want, that is anthropomorphism. As Quartz Media states, “We ascribe a mind to non-human agents to explain and rationalize behavior we don’t understand.”
Rather than knock those who talk to everyone and everything, Epley acknowledges this behavior as a reflection of our brain’s greatest ability, and it shouldn’t be treated as a sign of stupidity. We agree — though the science is still waiting to prove the link between anthropomorphic tendencies and social intelligence, it’s hard to imagine the association being anything but strong.