This experimental paradigm in all its variations has allowed for the formulation of very interesting hypotheses about intuitive morality in infants Wynn and Bloom, ; Van de Vondervoort and Hamlin, The evaluations are made possible by the fact that infants naturally attribute good or evil intentions to geometrical objects moving on a screen.
Let us focus on the developmental path. If we compare the interpretations of the movements of simple objects made by adults with those made by children, the difference between them seems to be only in terms of complexity. However, the anthropomorphic attribution is present in both groups. A particularly interesting point is that the language used to describe these situations is affected. As we have observed in the studies with infants mentioned above, the researchers themselves describe the experimental situation using anthropomorphic language, a block pushing the other up or down.
Thus, not only the experimental subjects but also the authors of the studies and the readers are involved in anthropomorphic attribution. We find exceptions to anthropomorphic interpretation of objects in motion only in clinical groups, such as persons with autism spectrum disorders Abell et al. A fundamental feature of anthropomorphism that appears already in infancy is the fact that in these interactions, two possible roles are attributed to the actors. According to the age of the subjects, this simple dichotomic distinction may appear at different levels of elaboration, but it is still present in adult anthropomorphization of objects.
As said before, in everyday life, we expect that objects cooperate with us to ensure the success of our activities. One can address it and invite it to be more collaborative or blame it as an obstacle to achieving the intended goal, for example.
The analysis of the geometrical objects in motion may be pursued further. The original experiment showed that adults were very easily induced to connect the simple acts performed by the figures and construct stories. This observation means that even the simplest situations may trigger the process of imagination.
The geometrical figures are not only perceived as acting in a manner related to each other but also attributed mental and affective states. In this case, the adults were exercising an ability that begins with children as young as 12 months in pretend play Fein, Pretense in children involves both anthropomorphization and imagination.
Young children may naturally produce situations similar to the ones proposed in the experiments mentioned before, for instance, using colored blocks to represent objects and imagine simple stories involving them. They anthropomorphize and construct stories with stuffed animals, puppets, and dolls.
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However, even when young children anthropomorphize the objects with which they play, they are not confused about their status. It has been shown that at least by age 3, children distinguish reality from pretense Woolley and Wellman, ; Harris, ; Ma and Lillard, and that differences between children and adults reflect a continuous development Woolley, The use of anthropomorphization of animals for children has been recently questioned in the literature, and a number of studies have shown that it does not necessarily enhance early learning Richert et al.
From a theoretical point of view, the question is whether anthropomorphism is a natural form of thinking typical of young children that evolves in later years, as maintained by Carey , or instead if it develops under the influence of adults and the cultural milieu. In this debate, the term anthropomorphism is often replaced by anthropocentrism to stress the fact that using human categories to understand other biological entities leads to mistaken representations.
According to Carey, young children reason about animals from an anthropocentric point of view that is later abandoned due to a conceptual change. It seems to be absent, for instance, in rural cultures Medin et al. Additionally, in urban cultures, it is not present at 3 years of age but rather develops later Herrmann et al.
What these studies show is that there is not a universal developmental stage that involves the extension of anthropomorphic features to unknown biological entities. Anthropomorphism is an attitude that children acquire in urban societies in which animals are not part of everyday life except as pets and companions. The evidence presented in this section leads us to some conclusions about the human tendency for anthropomorphism. There are aspects of anthropomorphism that seem to be universal and that emerge very early in development.
Let us summarize them. As we have observed, adults have no vocabulary other than anthropomorphic terms for these situations. This is more than a linguistic problem. Intentionality is the best model that humans have to describe these situations. One entity is perceived as trying to join or escape another, for instance. Thus, another anthropomorphic concept seems to be unavoidable, relation. Entities in a defined space that move in a coherent manner are related to one another as if they were human beings.
One entity may collaborate with another or be perceived as an obstacle. Again, this is true for children and for adults. Objects are perceived as helpers or hinderers. Thus, even in the simplest relational contexts, we do not find animism but rather anthropomorphism. Note that there is nothing in the object itself that makes it adapted to be anthropomorphized, nor is there any particular belief leading to anthropomorphic attribution of mentality. Anthropomorphism is grounded in the relation.
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Infants already distinguish the two situations and exhibit a preference for the cooperative object over the non-cooperative one. The whole process is made possible by imagination. Objects acquire imaginary characteristics, including mental and affective states, and more complex relations may be evoked. This process starts in young children but is still present in adults even if the imaginary constructions may be differently elaborated in the two cases.
We can conclude that in humans from infancy to adulthood, there is a basic tendency to anthropomorphize entities under certain circumstances, i. It is important to stress that this attitude certainly appears in infancy but is present throughout life. Anthropomorphism is a specific human attitude, not a childish mistake. However, what about the anthropomorphization of animals?
As we have observed, the experimental results do not confirm that it is universal in young children. On the contrary, it is acquired specifically in societies in which contact with animals is not frequent. As stressed by Herrmann et al. According to this perspective, the basic distinction that young children make is between animate and inanimate entities. On the contrary, attribution of specifically human features to animals would be acquired. Children who have no information about animals are taught to use the human model to interpret their behavior. Reciprocally, anthropomorphized animals are used to teach them behavioral and moral rules of human society.
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In societies in which animals coexist with humans, children better know about them and have more specific models to interpret their behavior. What is important here is that this claim applies to beliefs about animals and must be distinguished from interaction with them.
When interacting with animals, children who have pets may treat them as companions and anthropomorphize them as adults do. The previous remarks illustrate a fundamental distinction between anthropomorphism as a belief and anthropomorphism as it appears in interaction.
In my perspective, to treat anthropomorphism as a system of beliefs without considering its relational aspect is a source of misunderstanding and potentially contradictory results. In the following, I shall argue this point in more detail. As we have observed, when anthropomorphism is defined as a system of beliefs, a distinction between strong and weak beliefs is often accepted. Beliefs may be strong, such as anthropomorphic traits attributed to God in many religions, or weak, as in the case of mental states momentarily attributed to objects such as a car or a computer.
For instance, in their theory of anthropomorphism, Epley et al. Let us examine why it is not useful to characterize anthropomorphism as a form of belief. People may anthropomorphize not only cats and dogs but also pests, robots or locks. There is no requirement of human-likeness or a high level of complexity.
Moreover, the same entity may be treated by the same person alternately in both anthropomorphic and realistic manners, showing that this attitude is independent of the knowledge about the entity that one possesses. The uncertainty that a person may entertain about the real nature of an entity is not an explanation either. Obviously, anybody knows the fact that a mammal is much more similar to a human being than an insect, and people are more likely to attribute complex cognitive states to primates than to cockroaches Eddy et al. Thus, people have a more or less conscious concept of scala naturae.
However, under certain circumstances, an insect can also be anthropomorphized.
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Inversely, a cow may be objectified when it is used as food. Can the anthropomorphizing process be considered a form of metaphor? Actually, the metaphor model is too generic to explain the process of dealing with non-humans as if they were humans.
Furthermore, the concept of metaphor is inadequate in this context because the aim of anthropomorphic process is not to describe a situation but rather to affect it. We have repeatedly observed that in anthropomorphic representations, the content is irrelevant. Only the relational context transforms a representation into an instance of anthropomorphism. The activation of the process of anthropomorphization of an object momentarily obscures the realistic knowledge about it that one has.
However, the situation is easily reversed, and the object can be perceived again with its actual features. In all of the cases that we have observed, anthropomorphization is never a question of degrees. It is an all or nothing attribution, a figure—ground relation. My hypothesis is that to explain the existence of inconsistent points of view about the same object, we have to define the circumstances in which this shift from one point of view to the other occurs.
Anthropomorphism is neither a belief in its stronger forms nor a metaphor in its weaker forms.