Chicago Booth Capital Ideas Magazine
" Anthropomorphism—giving human characteristics to animals, objects, constellations, and other nonhuman things—is a natural and ancient human inclination. Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume wrote about a “universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves”—a tendency, he argued, that stems from an intellectual urge to understand a frightening and erratic existence. All over the world, and throughout time, people have fashioned gods after people—and some have envisioned god-favored heroes in the constellations. Sailors named storms and hurricanes, a tradition continued by meteorological organizations. We see faces in clouds and trees, and attribute to our pets motivations that we can’t prove.
In the past few decades, thanks to advances in technology, we have created things that talk, sing, dance on screen, smile, frown, and exhibit nuanced human expressions. We think of products and brands as other people with fully formed personalities—as companions, friends, and relationship partners. When companies develop anthropomorphized characters, consumers pay attention. A video of geeky, dancing hamsters shilling for Kia has more than 8 million views on YouTube.
But despite our apparent need to anthropomorphize objects, the issue was rarely studied from a business perspective until recently. Now researchers are beginning to understand the psychology of anthropomorphism, which can be a useful tool—not only for selling cars and other products, but in understanding how we interact with animals, computers, and entire ecosystems. Anthropomorphism could be used to help overcome fears about self-driving cars, or to persuade a sometimes-skeptical public to confront climate change. A sense of humanity, we are learning, is a powerful motivator.
What makes us see humans everywhere?
Hume implied that our anthropomorphism is uniform. Nicholas Epley, John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth, disagrees. He says that when it comes to assigning human qualities to things, there’s huge variability. We don’t even anthropomorphize the same object in all situations. Sometimes, he points out, we start a car and press the pedal. Other times, we may pet its dashboard and plead for it to start.
“It changes over the course of a lifetime, in different situations, and across different cultures,” says Epley. Though it contradicts our higher logic, we still get sucked in: we know a talking peanut can’t exist, yet he’s an endearing and remarkably adept salesperson. We know that a computer that crashes right before a big presentation can’t be out to get us, but we curse at it anyway. It seems to be in our nature to humanize things despite our capacity to reason—or perhaps in part because of it.
A designer, illustrator, repro-media consultant, brand strategist, new product developer, real estate investor, new venture builder, scuba diver, martial artist… and most importantly, husband and father, Filip holds a BFA from The Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and an MBA from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He is constantly seeking equilibrium between Form and Function; Purpose and Survival; He is equally comfortable with fuzzy feeling and fussy