Everyone knows someone who talks to his or her pet as if the dog or cat is a human being. Such individuals might have lengthy conversations with their pets under the belief that the animal’s mind is just as advanced as their own and can therefore fully comprehend human dialogue.
The tendency to assign a human mind to an inanimate object or animal is known as anthropomorphism. It turns out that the reason we talk to pets the same way we talk to our friends is also the reason people talk to cars, firearms, or plants, often assigning them human names as well.
But anthropomorphism goes far beyond communication. The phenomenon is rooted in the notion that inanimate objects or animals think and feel as if they were human beings. For example, you’ve probably heard someone refer to the ocean as “angry,�? ask an automobile “Why won’t you just start?,�? or claim that the stock market “could use a break.�?
Animals have deep thoughts and feelings but it’s safe to say that a great deal of their actions can be attributed to the laws of nature. When your dog or cat behaves a certain way, it isn’t necessarily because a conscious decision was made to please or displease you. Thanks to anthropomorphism, pet owners tend to assign human adjectives to animal behavior. Is your cat really acting “sassy,�? or just acting like a cat is supposed to?
Adults who have human-like conversations with their pets are typically perceived as childish or even mentally unstable. Society tells us that this is something we’re supposed to stop doing after the age of five. But Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, reveals that anthropomorphizing as adults is a sign of intelligence, not immaturity.
In his 2014 book, “Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want,�? Epley calls anthropomorphism “a natural byproduct of the tendency that makes humans uniquely smart on this planet.�?
“For centuries, our willingness to recognize minds in nonhumans has been seen as a kind of stupidity, a childlike tendency toward anthropomorphism and superstition that educated and clear-thinking adults have outgrown. I think this view is both mistaken and unfortunate. Recognizing the mind of another human being involves the same psychological processes as recognizing a mind in other animals, a god, or even a gadget. It is a reflection of our brain’s greatest ability rather than a sign of our stupidity.�?
Epley goes on to say that the psychological tools involved in anthropomorphism are the exact same tools involved in socializing with other human beings. Using these tools on pets only strengthens social intelligence, or the ability to successfully interpret and internalize human intentions.
As for those who don’t believe pets actually understand human dialogue, there’s a good chance they simply aren’t talking to them the right way. A study published last January found that puppies are much more likely to respond to praises and commands as long as they are communicated with a certain technique.
People naturally alter their speech when talking to dogs, almost as if they were talking to a human infant. These alterations include shortening sentences, using more simple words, or speaking in a higher-than-usual pitch. British researchers proved that the third technique is most vital in capturing a young dog’s attention and triggering a response.
This conclusion was drawn after the team played recordings of different phrases, such as “Come here!,�? “Who’s a good boy?,�? or “Hello sweetie pie!,�? in a wide range of tones. When a higher-pitch was used, the puppies not only responded more often but also more strongly.
This suggests that when teaching a young dog how to behave, it is an elevated tone, not a harsher one, that is more likely to achieve the desired response.