What's with anthropomorphism?


There are variations on the definition. You can check this out yourself with Wikipedia and various online dictionaries. Basically its defined as the ascribing of human feelings or emotions to non-humans. If the subject of the comment is not alive, then anthropomorphism is easy to detect. "My car is happy with its new coat of paint." "The old ship is tired, having been around the world too many times." Cars and ships don't have brains, so they are not self-aware, not able to have feelings.

What happens when we use a word that denotes human emotions in the context of an animal? Then things get more complicated. Is hunger an emotion? Humans get hungry, but so do dogs and cats. Have you ever seen a dog or cat that appears to be sad, happy, playful, jealous or annoyed? Can a pet be preferentially affectionate or loyal to specific people?

There was a time not so long ago when anthropomorphism was considered a taboo to be avoided at all costs when discussing animal behavior. The problem was, no one was bothering to determine what feelings or emotions belonged exclusively within the realm of humans. Most behaviorists today agree that anthropomorphism is a problem point in the design and interpreting of animal behavior studies. However, at the same time, animals do have their own rich and complicated emotions. We tend to use the appropriate word for human emotions to describe animal behavior simply because we don't have different words to apply when we refer to other species. Anthropomorphism will and should continue to be a vexing problem in academic circles, but for animal owners, we can and should recognize their emotions and physiological states, and be glad they have them.