Research and article done in collaboration with Isabella Kuo
Why do we choose to assign a gender to our car? Why do we apologize when we bump into a piece of furniture? Why do we yell at our computer when it struggles to work? Why do we give names to our toys? Though talking to inanimate objects may seem like symptoms of a deranged mind, these types of behaviours are practiced by nearly everyone. This is because of our innate human tendency for anthropomorphism: the ascription of humanlike characteristics, motivations, intentions, or emotions in nonhuman things (Grossman & Simon, 1969). While this tendency can be obvious in some cases (e.g., naming dolls, action figures), the human imagination extends anthropomorphism far beyond the humanlike. Ever notice that some cars look like they’re smiling? Do you get angry with your temperamental washing machine? Have you bumped into a store mannequin and promptly said “sorry”? Does your guitar seem free-spirited? These are all different forms of anthropomorphism.
We wanted to better understand this phenomenon, so we set out to explore why people anthropomorphize objects in their lives. We did this by surveying 125 adults through an online questionnaire, asking them about a specific object that they had given a name. Though anthropomorphism extends far beyond simply naming (for example, not wanting your stuffed animal to be outside in the winter because it’ll get cold, or characterizing your car as “moody” instead of merely having mechanical issues), we viewed the act of naming as a common human behaviour that would provide a simple way for us to explore anthropomorphism. We wanted to find out what types of objects were being named, why people reported the need to name them, and of course, what kind of odd names people were giving their prized possessions.
Some research has explored the effects of our anthropomorphic tendencies on how we approach such objects and behave in the world. As Epley and colleagues (2007) observed, anthropomorphism can (a) affect whether a particular agent (i.e., a fancier way of saying object or entity) is treated as one worthy of respect, (b) have implications on our expectations for the agents’ future behaviours, and (c) have implications on our interpretations of their current behaviours. What we anthropomorphize can even help facilitate social connections when we’re lonely (Waytz et al., 2010).
Other research has attempted to understand why people anthropomorphize objects. We were particularly interested in hearing and analyzing examples directly from our respondents. What kinds of objects were people prone to naming? When explicitly asked about these anthropomorphic tendencies, how would people rationalize them? Is there a difference between these anecdotal rationales and what current research indicates? These agents can clearly have powerful impacts on our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours, but what exactly are these types of agents?
In exploring these questions, we quickly found that many of the objects cited by respondents could be grouped into five major categories: toys, vehicles, electronics, plants, and instruments. We also identified two overarching themes in the respondents’ rationales of why they gave their objects names: relational, pertaining to aspects of the connection developed between people and their possessions; and objective, being names that were derived from features or factors of the object itself.
When you think about your family, you likely evoke images of your parents, siblings, a spouse, children, in-laws, and grandparents. Did a car come to mind? Probably not. However, since we are such social creatures, we often subconsciously perceive relationships between ourselves and our possessions, which are sometimes so strong that we refer to these objects as members of the family.
This phenomenon of seeing relationships with our possessions isn’t exclusive to cars. “My plants are my children and so they need names.” “I spend every night with my plush rabbit, so he needed a name.” One respondent even felt that a human anatomy model deserved the name Mr. Bones. “He was my study buddy for a particularly difficult course and since he cost so much, I’m keeping him forever, thus he needed a name.”
Why exactly do these objects need names? They may be in recognition of a special relationship. Names carry such significance in our society (Kotilainen, 2011) that a perceived close relationship with an object could necessitate a name. “We decided it was such a great computer that it deserved a name.” Anointing inanimate objects with a name is an act of recognizing the object is of value to someone — this means that not all objects get a name. You’ll notice that many of our respondents discussed giving names to their cars, stuffed animals, plants, and robot vacuums. That said, you probably haven’t heard of anyone naming their bathroom mirror despite using it every day. Instead, the first PC that someone sourced parts for, paid for and built entirely on their own, deserved a name.
Would asserting ownership be sufficient for recognizing a relationship and indicating value? After all, that’s what the relationship is — one between an owner and an owned object. And yet, “my car” doesn’t seem sufficient for such a relationship. Think about the interactions we have with these possessions. You play with stuffed toys, akin to playing with a friend. “I will hug Bunny extra tight if I am sad or scared.” You care for a car, much like tending to a child. “I like patting Carly on the steering wheel and encouraging him if we gotta go up a steep hill and affectionately talk to him while we drive.” These types of objects elicit social interactions because we afford them a humanlike and social space in our minds. Since our interactions with these objects are anthropomorphic in nature, a simple indication of ownership (e.g., “my car”) is not enough to recognize the social relationship that we have. In the words of Lexie’s owner, “My car is a member of my family, and I prefer referring to her by her name instead of having to always say ‘my car’.”
Perhaps this type of anthropomorphism reminds you of child-like wonder. Indeed, children have a greater tendency to anthropomorphize (Epley et al., 2007); their lack of knowledge about the real world is compensated by the creation of fantasies. Our findings reinforced this, with nearly half of all respondents choosing to discuss their stuffed animals. Toys are often comfort objects that accompany a child’s development. It is well-observed that children create identities for their toys and interact with them in a manner similar to that of human interactions (Ginsburg, 2007), and to the dismay of parents, sometimes even with more sympathy and affection.
Did you have a special blanket growing up? You’re not alone; many children develop persistent attachment to specific objects, which have been dubbed “transitional objects” (Winnicott, 1953). They are transitional in their ability to help children transition to independence, which is a crucial stage in child development. Children can socialize, seek companionship, and practice vocabulary with their transitional objects. Anthropomorphizing toys is seemingly a necessary stage in a child’s development but also reinforces the sentimental value of such toys. As adults responding to our survey, many respondents rationalized that they named the toy because it was special to them, “because he was my favourite stuffed toy“. Although children may not know it upon naming their toys, the act is done to recognize the value of these transitional objects. The need for these objects of primordial significance usually dwindles over the course of a healthy development, but as many of our respondents showed, we still look back fondly on them.
Naming an object not only indicates that there is a special relationship between the person and the object, but it can also be done in an attempt to build a relationship and imagine what could be. Consider that those who raise livestock for home consumption do not name those animals, yet on the other hand, some respondents noted that they named their stuffed toys in a conscious attempt to “make the stuffed animal seem more alive“. The owner of Ron the printer commented on her explicit anthropomorphism, stating that “maybe personifying my printer and treating him as an equal would help it work better“.
There seems to be an expectation that naming an object brings with the act a certain level of kinship, trust, and solidarity, especially if this object is dangerous or involves life-threatening situations. For example, perhaps your car will have vested interest in keeping you safe if you named it “Tabby”. History is filled with other examples of people giving names to possessions that their lives depend on. Swords, guns, and even bombs were historically given names, seemingly to either acknowledge the object’s criticality or in the hope of further strengthening the bond between weilder and weapon. Naming became a way of fabricating artificial trust between us and the objects intended to protect us.
Similarly, we rely on giant metal contraptions to transport us around places, while trusting that they won’t suddenly break. For one respondent, “The experience of riding a motorcycle feels like a partnership between human and machine. When I ride, I put my trust in my bike and feel it must trust me so that we both are safe. In this way, my motorcycle has proven to be one of the most trustworthy things in my life.” Objects suddenly acquire humanlike characteristics, such as being trustworthy, if we feel the need to place our trust in them. Naming an object might generate some form of bond, giving us peace of mind despite the object truly having no interest in our needs and desires (Epley et al., 2007).
If we want others to cooperate with us or have some influence over others, our instinct is to communicate with them (Krauss & Fussell, 1996), which encapsulates some attribution of mental and affective states (i.e., anthropomorphism). When it comes to objects, we can do this out of hope (such as in the case of the motorcyclist), frustration (Carr “struggling to go uphill”), gratitude (Endora the stand mixer “seemed like it was making my life easier like magic“), or loneliness (Miso the plushie was named “to make it more like a real pet and something I can care and have feelings for“). Naming an object then becomes a means to socialize, to implore our objects to cooperate with us, or to imagine a relationship between us and a prized possession.
Or maybe, these names back-fill the justification for our own strange, social behaviour; if we’re already crazy enough to communicate with a lifeless object that clearly can’t respond, why not name it? This type of behaviour may act as a coping mechanism that allows us to feel okay about being social with non-social objects by anthropomorphizing them through naming, playing upon what’s known as our sociality motivation (Epley et al., 2008). We deeply desire social connection, and even if this desire is fulfilled by a possession, we embrace this strange relationship and formalize it by giving the object a name.
At other times, we seem to give things names because of some inherent thingness about them. From the obvious naming of “Bunny” the plush rabbit to the more tongue-in-cheek “Ginger” the soulless Kia Soul, sometimes an object just speaks to us (well, not literally). Typically, these names are rooted in either some performative aspect of an object, such as when a car gets old and starts to struggle on hills, or a substantive characteristic, such as its look or feel. Some of the rationales we heard were very on the nose – literally adopting the brand name of a product – while others were more obscure – such as onomatopoeic descriptors of noises made by the object.
Performative rationales related to aspects of how an object functioned. Often, these names were endearingly critical for older items, such as cars, whose respondents found humour in their names, “It’s named for Keith Richards because the car was still alive and kicking strong, LONG past the time it should have been retired and done.” Sometimes, these quirks became a source of annoyance that caused respondents to feel the need to name their car in order to not feel weird about talking to it, “I was pretty annoyed with his peculiar quirks, so I was pretty much always talking to him like ‘Bloody car, why won’t you…’ which turned into an affectionate ‘Carly’ after a few months.”
Other objects, such as pens, also took on unique names based on unintended product features or failures, “I named my pen Loki because it is mercurial and fickle as all hell. It will work consistently for ages, then suddenly stop, or go back and forth between the two.” While others, like an industrious robot vacuum were honoured with a name for their service, “As a hard working robot I felt my Roomba deserved a name fitting of his station.”
Perhaps most interesting of these performative rationales were from individuals who explicitly anthropomorphized their possessions due to the identification of a sort of personality learned through interaction; “Instruments have a personality that you can learn while playing them.” Others even viewed these lifeless objects as replacements for living things, like pets, “It’s a self cleaning robot and I don’t have a pet, so it’s the closest I will ever come to having a dog.” Though these names and anthropomorphic characterizations drew upon performative aspects, they also blur the line between relational connections due to the intimate nature of a person’s interaction with them.
Taking a step back, it was fascinating to see that many of the performative rationales were based on negative or atypical behaviour. This in and of itself is a unique insight: that we seem to associate humanness with failure, the unexpected, or deviation from the norm. This could be due to our need to explain the unexpected behaviour of these objects, dubbed effectance motivation (Epley, Waytz, Cacioppo, 2007). Playing off people’s innate needs for closure and control, this motivation to name could also stem from a desire to explain a strange object’s behaviour by aligning it with one of the most mercurial yet familiar things we know: other people. It’s funny to think that when a car or robot is faulty, it could encourage us to view it as more humanlike (Mirnig et al., 2017), but when we lack another explanation for its delinquency, sometimes the only thing you can do is give it a name, shake your head, and chalk such failures up to the object’s quirky personality.
Some of the most common things named tended to be very high-value, safety-critical objects such as vehicles. Though many of these cars were named because they were old and falling apart, we may actually be naming them as a way to encourage positive performance (Waytz, Cacioppo, Epley, 2010), since each time we get behind the wheel, we place our lives in the “hands” of the car. Similar to relational rationales around forming a bond with a trusted object, this half of the rationale names a possession to endow the responsibility for good performance, since trust and responsibility go hand in hand. If a major failure has the potential to take our lives at 100km/h, perhaps it’s worthwhile to name a VW Beetle “Heidi” so that she feels a greater inherent responsibility in keeping us safe. For a task as important as keeping us alive, shouldn’t objects that we entrust with this duty deserve a name?
Substantive rationales tended to be a bit more on the nose. Whether riffing on corporate brand names or leaning into physical descriptions, these names were generally less creative and more obvious. This included naming a car “Whitie, because of her paint colour” or simply naming a rock “Rocky because it was a rock and I was 5 years old.” Some people were slightly more creative, throwing a degree of separation into names like “Happy” for a VW Golf, named after the movie Happy Gilmore. Others used more straightforward names around strange product mashups, such as “Pizza Hut”, a desktop computer that lacked a case and was built in an old pizza box.
An object’s display of seemingly human characteristics allows us to respond to these social cues thoughtlessly by applying human stereotypes and biases to it (Lee et al., 2005). Whether making cognitive leaps to a fictitious boxer, favourite movie character, or even a corporate person, our ability to latch onto object features and anthropomorphize them, often in twisted and convoluted ways, likely stems from our early childhood training to actively perceive life in the world around us (Lemaignan et al., 2014). Ultimately, we want these objects to be alive, social things because of our deep-rooted need for social connection and belongingness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). This effect has even been shown to be exacerbated by feelings on loneliness (Eyssel & Reich, 2013); when we lack genuine human connection, we will artificially create it in the world around us by latching onto anything vaguely social, even if it’s a rock or a pizza box.
After reviewing over 100 responses to our questionnaire, one thing became glaringly obvious: there is no single reason why people anthropomorphize. Likely, our respondents gave their possessions a name due to a plethora of factors of the object, the individual, and the context under which the object was acquired or used. However, after chuckling our way through reams of responses, we did see the emergence of anthropomorphic trends that tended towards the relationship constructed between object and person, or the performative and substantive factors of the object that gave rise to a name. Beneath these themes lay a host of theories, frameworks, and hypotheses as to why we feel the need to give a cactus a top hat and speak to it in a fake British accent.
Whether these reasons stem from a desire for familial connection, childhood development, enhancing a bond with an object, justifying odd behaviour, rationalizing an object’s terrible performance, reminders of an object’s human likeness, or just because it looks weird; one thing became abundantly clear during this project: humans are strangely social creatures. At the root of our findings lay people’s inherent need to socialize everyday objects, seemingly subconsciously, and without hesitation. From our anecdotal experience, if you ask anyone about a possession that they’ve named, you will almost never find an individual lacking a strange and fascinating story. Anthropomorphism courses through our veins; the mere fact that we have a specific word for it shows how prominent it is in our lives.
Yet while these stories of naming cars, computers, and colour-changing light bulbs are often adorable and heartwarming, there lay deeper implications that must be considered. When we anthropomorphize an object, we afford it many of the same social and emotional responses that we would people. This strange phenomenon was observed in the Stanford Media Equation studies (Reeves & Nass, 1996). Their experiments were simple: a person did a boring task on a desktop computer while the computer popped up vaguely social messages such as, “go team!” or “keep up the good work”. After the task, respondents completed a survey in one of two conditions: either on the same computer they’d been working on or on an identical secondary computer in the same room. The researchers found that when people completed the survey on the secondary computer, they were far more critical of the first machine that they had been working on. Think about this for a minute: we were concerned with hurting a computer’s feelings to its face, however, had no problem criticizing it behind its back.
Anthropomorphism doesn’t simply implicate naming things or talking to them, it changes the fundamental way that people think, feel, and behave around inanimate objects. It gives them social value well beyond their monetary worth. It affords them greater attention and consideration in our lives. Corporations are taking note of this effect. Cars are being designed to look like smiling faces. Computer interfaces are being imbued with humanlike design aesthetics. Marketing teams are describing products using increasingly humanlike language so that you’ll associate their offering with social and emotional factors. And as technologies are becoming more social and humanlike through new advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, our deference to objects as social beings in our lives will only increase.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? No. Anthropomorphizing objects is a critical part of a child’s cognitive development, can help ease feelings of loneliness during times of isolation, and can generally make our lives more social, happy, and fun. However, it is important to be aware of these effects when maligned actors attempt to use them against us. Humanlike characteristics can be used to sell to us, anthropomorphic features can be used to increase product “stickiness” (which is essentially corporate white-washing for “addictiveness”), and interactions with humanlike objects can be pushed on us as corporatized ways of fulfilling social needs without people. The difference between positive and negative use of anthropomorphism is often razor thin, context-sensitive, and subject to the values of an individual. What is critical is that you are aware of this effect and able to identify when you’re falling into the anthropomorphic cycle. Only then can you make an informed decision about whether naming your handheld vacuum cleaner ‘Dweezle Stevenson’ serves your best interests or if your camera truly deserves to be called ‘Sir Clicks-a-Lot.’
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