‘Staaaay… don’t you dare fall over,’ you’ll often find me saying threateningly to objects around my home. ‘Thanks Elsa’ I’ll express to my car in appreciation when she beeps to let me know I’ve left the lights on. I constantly speak to my cat, and not just in English. He ‘knows’ basic French too!
Now, if you’re thinking there’s something a little abnormal about me, I’m pleased to inform you that there’s a school of thought that disagrees!
Those Who Speak To Animals And Innanimate Objects May Be Highly Intelligent
It’s now widely believed that people who anthropomorphize – attribute human characteristics or behavior to – inanimate objects and pets are displaying higher levels of social intelligence than those who do not.
Humans are the most social primates on the planet, and are made happier and healthier by developing relationships with others. Scientists used to explain anthropomorphism as a sort of extraordinary phenomenon that eluded explanation. They noted that it was seen more often in children than adults and as far back as the sixth century BC, philosophers threw anthropomorphism in with a rather large collection of human flaws, ‘presuming that it represented one of the many different forms of human stupidity that could only be overcome by rigorous learning and thinking.’ Nowadays, we still have that line of thought when ridiculing someone for not being grown up enough to know that an inanimate object is just that – inanimate, or that a pet won’t speak back to you. (1)
Developing A Better Understanding
According to Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, ‘human beings have evolved a uniquely sophisticated system of social cognition that is used to explain and predict other people’s behavior’ and this is why we tend to attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects and pets. A motivation to form a social bond with a pet might then increase attention to what the pet is thinking and feeling, thereby increasing the likelihood of perceiving human-like traits in them. (1, 2)
Not only do we name pets, plants and cars, but we also give them personality traits. My car, for example, is an old lady. One day she’ll go off to retire and rest. Obviously, I know this isn’t reality, but it makes me feel good. When I’m driving alone in dangerous conditions, it makes me feel a little safer to pretend that my car is a person along with me and that I’m not completely alone. Macquarie University linguistics professor Ingrid Piller explains. ‘You name the vessel because it becomes your most important companion. You want to believe it has vested interest in keeping you safe—even though it truly has no interests at all.’ (3)
Advertisers also use this anthropomorphizing of inanimate objects to try to manipulate us. A car is made of completely lifeless steel, but anthropomorphizing it as if it were alive may make consumers reluctant to replace it for a newer model. As Epley notes, ‘crushing lifeless steel is one thing [whereas] crushing an old reliable friend is quite another.’ This exploitation of a harmless (and quite adorable) thing does have an upside to it though – thanks to this, there will undoubtedly be a lot more research on the subject, which means we get to learn a lot more about ourselves. (1)
While there’s nothing to suggest that speaking to pets, plants, and cars makes you more intelligent in the traditional sense of the word, having social intelligence is just as important, if not more and I’m pleased to count myself among those who happily chatter away to my pets and inanimate objects.