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«Social Cognition Unbound: Insights into Anthropomorphism and Dehumanization Adam Waytz1, Nicholas Epley2, John T. Cacioppo2 Harvard University ...»

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RUNNING HEAD: Social Cognition Unbound

Social Cognition Unbound: Insights into Anthropomorphism and Dehumanization

Adam Waytz1, Nicholas Epley2, John T. Cacioppo2

Harvard University

University of Chicago

Corresponding author:

Adam Waytz

Department of Psychology

Harvard University

Northwest Science Building

52 Oxford St

Cambridge, MA 02138

Social Cognition Unbound, 2


People conceive of wrathful gods, fickle computers, and selfish genes, attributing human characteristics to a variety of supernatural, technological, and biological agents.

This tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman agents figures prominently in domains ranging from religion to marketing to computer science. Perceiving an agent to be humanlike has important implications for whether the agent is capable of social influence, accountable for its actions, and worthy of moral care and consideration. Three primary factors—elicited agent knowledge, sociality motivation, and effectance motivation—appear to account for a significant amount of variability in anthropomorphism. Identifying these factors that lead people to see nonhuman agents as humanlike also sheds light on the inverse process of dehumanization, whereby people treat human agents as animals or objects. Understanding anthropomorphism can contribute to a more expansive view of social cognition that applies social psychological theory to a wide variety of both human and nonhuman agents.

Keywords: anthropomorphism, dehumanization, mind perception, social cognition, person perception Social Cognition Unbound, 3 Ask your favorite demographer to tell you something about human population expansion over the course of history and they will probably show you a graph of exponential growth that appears likely—any moment now—to overwhelm the planet.

Look around. People seem to be everywhere. But look harder and you will notice even more humanlike agents in the environment, from pets that can seem considerate and caring, to gods that have goals and plans for one’s life, to computers than can seem to have minds of their own. People show an impressive capacity to create humanlike agents—a kind of inferential reproduction—out of those that are clearly nonhuman.

People ask invisible gods for forgiveness, talk to their plants, kiss dice to persuade a profitable roll, name their cars, curse at unresponsive computers, outfit their dogs with unnecessary sweaters, and consider financial markets to be “anxious” at one moment and “delirious” the next. This process of anthropomorphism is a critical determinant of how peopleunderstand and treat nonhuman agents from gods to gadgets to the stock market, is central to multibillion dollar industries such as robotics and pet care, and features prominently in public debates ranging from the treatment of Mother Earth to abortion rights.

We suggest unbinding research on social cognition from its historic focus on how people understand other people. Studying how people understand other agents—whether human or not—dramatically broadens the scope of psychological theory and investigation to address when people attribute humanlike capacities to other agents and when they do not.

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Anthropomorphism goes beyond providing purely behavioral or dispositional descriptions of observable actions (such as noting that a coyote is fast or aggressive); it involves attributing characteristics that people intuitively perceive to be uniquely human to nonhuman agents or events. Some people reported, for instance, seeing not only the face of the devil in the smoke from the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center but the evil intentions and goals of the devil behind the attacks as well.

Anthropomorphism therefore includes both physical features, such as perceiving a religious agent in a humanlike form, and mental capacities that people believe are uniquely human, such as the capacity to have conscious awareness, possess explicit intentions, or experience secondary emotions (e.g., joy, pride, shame, guilt). The inverse process of anthropomorphism is dehumanization, whereby people fail to attribute humanlike capacities to other humans and treat them like nonhuman animals or objects.

The Khmer Rouge, for instance, described their victims as “worms,” Nazi propaganda depicted Jews as vermin, and Rwandan Hutus described the Tutsi as “cockroaches.” The Greek philosopher Xenophanes was the first to use the term anthropomorphism when describing the striking similarity between religious believers and their gods, with Greek gods having fair skin and blue eyes and African gods having dark skin and brown eyes. Psychologists 27 centuries later are only now beginning to study such anthropomorphisms seriously, illuminating phenomena ranging from religious belief to animal domestication to artificial intelligence as well as the inverse process of dehumanization. Neuroscience demonstrates that similar brain regions are involved when reasoning about the behavior of both human and nonhuman agents (Gazzola, Rizzolatti,

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processes involved when thinking about other people. Cognitive and developmental psychology have examined both the pervasiveness and the limits of using the base concept “human” to reason about nonhuman stimuli such as biological kinds (Waxman & Medin, 2007) and religious agents (Barrett & Keil, 1996; Guthrie, 1993; Shtulman, 2008). And social psychology has examined the ways in which people are likely both to humanize nonhuman agents and to dehumanize out-group members or particular stereotyped groups.

This relatively recent surge of interest in anthropomorphism is driven by an appreciation of its wide-ranging implications and behavioral consequences. For instance, anthropomorphized agents become responsible for their own actions and therefore deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward (Gray, Gray, & Wegner, 2007).

When a bell in Mexico City’s famous Cathedral, Catedral Metropolitana, struck and killed a bell ringer, for example, the congregation punished the bell, tying it down for 50 years. Agents that are capable of judgment, intention, and feeling are also capable of directing their judgment, intentions, and feelings toward us, and therefore become agents of social influence. Thinking about a judgmental God tends to increase prosocial behavior towards others (Norenzayan & Shariff, 2008), and questionnaires presented on computers with humanlike faces increase socially desirable responding (Sproull, Subramani, Kiesler, Walker, & Waters, 1996).

Perhaps the most important implication of anthropomorphism is that perceiving an agent to be human renders it worthy of moral care and consideration (Gray et al., 2007). Recent environmental legislation in Ecuador, Switzerland, and the state of

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rivers based on anthropomorphic inferences that these stimuli possess internal experience and can feel pain and pleasure. It is no accident, we assume, that environmental activists frequently speak of “Mother Earth” when trying to encourage more environmentally responsible behavior. Anthropomorphizing an agent not only leads people to represent it as humanlike but to treat it as humanlike as well.

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Psychological research on anthropomorphism has developed slowly because it has long focused on the accuracy of anthropomorphic inferences. But whether a pet, a god, or a computer really possesses anthropomorphic traits is orthogonal to the psychological processes leading people to make such inferences in some circumstances and not in others. A psychological theory of anthropomorphism should instead explain and predict variability in this process. A recent theory we have developed identifies three primary determinants—one cognitive and two motivational—to explain important aspects of situational, developmental, cultural, and dispositional sources of variability in anthropomorphism (Epley, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2007).

This theory recognizes anthropomorphism as a basic process of inductive inference. The primary cognitive determinant of anthropomorphism is therefore the extent to which knowledge of humans (or the self in particular) is elicited or activated.

Anthropomorphism involves using existing knowledge about the self or the concept “human” to make an inference about a relatively unknown nonhuman agent, and factors that increase the accessibility and applicability of this knowledge therefore increase

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movements or its physical appearance, the more likely it is to be anthropomorphized (e.g., Morewedge, Preston, & Wegner, 2007).

Two motivational states can also increase the extent to which people either seek humanlike agency or use themselves or the concept “human” as an inductive base when reasoning about other agents. The first is the basic motivation for social connection.

Lacking social connection with other humans may lead people to seek connections with other agents and, in so doing, create humanlike agents of social support. In one extreme case, a British woman named Emma, living a solitary existence and fearing rejection from other people, fell in love with a hi-fi system that she named Jake. Others have taken to “marrying” objects of anthropomorphized affection such as the Eiffel Tower or the Berlin Wall. In less extreme cases, those who are chronically lonely are more likely than those who are chronically connected to anthropomorphize technological gadgets, and experimentally inducing loneliness increases the tendency to anthropomorphize one’s pet and to believe in commonly anthropomorphized religious agents (such as God or angels;

Epley, Akalis, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2008). It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that a considerable market has developed for robots that can create a sense of social connection, including uncanny androids that simulate a human hug and Paro, a personalized robotic seal that costs upwards of $4,700.

The second motivational factor that may increase anthropomorphism is effectance—the basic motivation to be a competent social agent. Lacking certainty, predictability, or control leads people to seek a sense of mastery and understanding over their environments. Given the overwhelming number of biological, technological, and

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understanding of these often-incomprehensible agents is to use a very familiar concept (that of the self or other humans) to make these agents and events more comprehensible.

Increasing effectance motivation, either measured as an individual difference in the desire for control or experimentally increasing the sense of unpredictability, therefore also increases people’s tendency to anthropomorphize robots, gadgets, and nonhuman animals (Waytz et al., 2009). This strategy seems to be somewhat effective—in one study, those instructed to provide anthropomorphic descriptions of various stimuli (e.g. a dog, a robot, an alarm clock, a set of shapes) reported that those stimuli seemed more predictable and understandable than did those who were instructed to provide nonanthropomorphic descriptions of the same stimuli (Waytz, et al., 2009). Indeed, the World Meteorological Organization notes that the naming of hurricanes and storms—a practice that originated with the names of saints, sailors’ girlfriends, and disliked political figures—simplifies and facilitates effective communication to enhance public preparedness, media reporting, and the efficient exchange of information.

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Anthropomorphism is the process of representing nonhuman agents as humanlike, whereas dehumanization appears to be the inverse process. Dehumanization entails representing human agents as nonhuman objects or animals and hence denying them human-essential capacities such as thought and emotion. Inverting a theory of anthropomorphism may therefore provide insights into dehumanization. For instance, just as increased similarity to the self or humans increases the tendency to anthropomorphize a nonhuman agent, so too does decreased similarity increase the tendency to dehumanize

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dehumanized, and those that are seen as the most dissimilar, such as drug addicts and homeless people, are also the most likely to be dehumanized (e.g. Harris & Fiske, 2006).

Countless examples of interethnic dehumanization, from discrimination against Gypsies across Europe to enslavement of African Americans in early America, may stem in part from perceptions of the minority group as fundamentally dissimilar to the self or to one’s own group.

Sociality appears to have a similarly inverse effect on anthropomorphism and dehumanization. Lonely people seek other humans just as hungry people seek food. A person who feels socially connected may therefore lack the motivation to actively seek out humanlike agents for social connection. If feeling isolated increases the tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman agents, then feeling socially connected may likewise increase the tendency to dehumanize other people—that is, to fail to attribute basic features of personhood to other people. Consistent with this prediction, participants in one experiment who were experimentally induced to feel socially connected were more likely to deny humanlike mental states to others and to endorse dehumanizing violence (Waytz & Epley, 2009). Historical examples of dehumanization, such as ongoing violence between the Palestinians and Israelis, the Nazis’ persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, and torture at Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq, also suggest that perpetrators of dehumanization are often members of a socially cohesive in-group acting against an outgroup. Social connection may have many benefits for a person’s own health and wellbeing but may have unfortunate consequences for intergroup relations by enabling

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