Home > Categorization, Cognitive Bias, Pattern Recognition > Everything has Feelings – Anthropomorphize with Me Now

Everything has Feelings – Anthropomorphize with Me Now

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Do you often find yourself talking to things that can’t respond?  What about not wanting to throw things away because you’ll hurt their feelings?  Do you give inanimate objects personalities?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, you anthropomorphize!  Also, your amygdala is probably fine and you probably aren’t autistic.

Anthropomorphism is when people attribute human-like features, physical and mental, to non-human agents.  Most definitions include religious deities in non-human things, but I’m not going there right now, so let’s focus on non-human animals, and non-animal objects instead.

I know I personally think everything has a personality.  I think all numbers have distinct characteristics as well as relationships with other numbers.  I hardly ever use the word it, because I assume the gender of practically everything, alive or not, that I encounter on a daily basis.  I have been told that most people don’t really take their anthropomorphic tendencies this far, but I figure most people can benefit from some general information on the topic.  Namely, what happens in our brains when we anthropomorphize, what the difference is between anthropomorphizing and recognizing faces, and what it means to anthropomorphize in today’s society.  Buckle up, folks.

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Image of Carlie Day of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” looking like he’s trying to explain Theory of the Mind

Psychologists spend a good deal of time lookin’ around in people’s brains to find out what does what.  When researchers first started looking at brain structure and anthropomorphism, they found that there was a lot of overlap between the parts of the brain that were activated during anthropomorphism and the parts of the brain that were already known to account for the Theory of Mind (Cullen, et al., 2013).  Theory of Mind is the ability to think from the perspective of another or understand someone else’s motives.  For example, when your friend says something kind of mean to you out of the blue you might be a little upset, but you also know that she just recently got some bad news and is probably in a bad mood.  This is you understanding the feelings of someone else and then applying them to that person’s actions.  In addition to seeing that there was overlap between what parts of the brain were involved in Theory of Mind and anthropomorphism, researchers found that people with damage to the amygdala (another part of the brain involved with Theory of Mind) actually had deficits in anthropomorphism (Waytz, et al,. 2014). This finding started to demonstrate that brain structure wasn’t just coincidentally linked to anthropomorphic tendency, but could actually impact how well a person could anthropomorphize.   


The red in this image indicates the location of the amygdala

Researchers wanted to see if they could prove this causation to a larger extent so they conducted a study where they compared brain structure to anthropomorphic ability.  What they found was that people with an increased volume of grey matter in the left temporoparietal junction (TPJ) were better able to anthropomorphize (Cullen, et al., 2014).  These findings make sense because previous studies correlate volume of grey matter with Theory of Mind work as well.  These findings are important because they demonstrate that anthropomorphism can be tied directly back to brain structure (Cullen, et al., 2014). In other words, when people tell you to stop treating everything like it has feelings, you can say, “I can’t help it!  I have a lot of grey matter!”  

Okay so, we know what anthropomorphizing is and where in the brain it takes place, but how do we know the difference between applying personality traits to things that don’t have personalities and applying past memories or understandings to a certain image.  Well, a study by Kuhn and colleagues honed in on what’s going on when people look at cars, and it helps answer that question.  You totally know what I mean when I say, that car is a pretty girl, that one is a strict dad, etcetera.  If you think I’m wrong, go watch the movie Cars.  But the study questioned if people were really accessing their Theory of Mind areas when they made these attributions.  What the results showed was a strong indication that they weren’t.  Instead, people are actually using the Fusiform Face Area (FFA) (Kuhn, et al., 2014),  which is a part of the brain that basically functions to find faces, even when they aren’t faces.  People are so good at recognising these face patterns that the phenomenon has its own name: pareidolia.  You can read more about that here.  But basically, pattern recognition in the car-face-situation is that you see a car, your FFA acts up and bam you have an association.  So, in other words, people are matching a pattern found on the car to a stereotype of a person (Kuhn, et al., 2014), but they ARE NOT USING THEORY OF MIND OR ANTHROPOMORPHISM!  What would be anthropomorphic behavior is when your car won’t start and you think she is doing it on purpose because she knows you’re already late and she heard you bad mouth her.  In fact, to further prove that seeing faces in things IS NOT ANTHROPOMORPHISM other studies (Chaminade, et al., 2014) argued that appearance doesn’t even really matter in anthropomorphism.  What matters more has to do with things like movement and actions.  Movement and actions light up Theory of Mind areas, faces, real or imagined, light up the FFA.  An example of this is the association people have with thunderstorms.  Dark clouds seem imposing and threatening, almost as if they are coming to get you, but that’s because they move in a creepy way, not because they have an ominous face.   

So why does this matter?  Well, information about anthropomorphism is actually pretty useful.  In an evaluation sense, it can be helpful to assess how children are at mentalizing, or understanding others, and an anthropomorphic deficit can be an indicator of autism (Chaminade, et al., 2014).  Think also of marketing strategies; many rely on anthropomorphism to sell their product.  Think of all of the commercials for insurance.  Often these commercials make things like fire or floods seemingly actively trying to hurt homeowners.  Obviously, these are natural disasters, but giving them scary or threatening personalities makes them a villain and makes the insurance company a hero for saving you from that villain.  The consequences of anthropomorphism also tie into legal activities, including but not limited to animal rights laws.  For example, even though some companies rely on animal testing because people anthropomorphize animals so strongly and are so worried about their feelings and safety, laws are put in place to protect them (Chaminade, et al., 2014).

For many of us, anthropomorphizing is a major part of everyday life.  Maybe you think everything in the room has feelings like I do, or maybe you just think the printer is super slow on purpose because it wants to make you late to class.  Either way, now you have a name for what’s going on and know a little more about it.  Enjoy the fun new info.  Tell your friends!



Chaminade, T., Rosset, D., Da Fonseca, D., Hodgins, J.K., & Deruelle, C. (2015). Anthropomorphic Bias Found in Typically Developing Children Is Not Found in Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Autism, 19.2, 248-51.

Cullen, H., Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., & Rees, G. (2014). Individual differences in anthropomorphic attributions and human brain structure. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci, 9, 1276-1280.

Kühn, S., Brick, T.R., Müller, B.C.N., & Gallinat, J. (2014). Is This Car Looking at You? How Anthropomorphism Predicts Fusiform Face Area Activation when Seeing Cars. PLoS ONE, 9(12).

Waytz, A., Cacioppo, J., & Epley, N. (2014). Who Sees Human? The Stability and Importance of Individual Differences in Anthropomorphism. Perspectives on Psychological Science : A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 5(3), 219–232


  1. Julia Parson
    April 29th, 2017 at 08:55 | #1

    Great post! This made me laugh— we definitely do this in my family, especially with our dogs, to whom we give distinct ‘voices.’ I had no idea that anthropomorphizing had a name, and I didn’t know that it is dependent on our brain structure—I guess I have a lot of grey matter! This whole concept reminds me of when we were learning about pattern recognition in class and we talked about pareidolia, which is when we see faces in inanimate objects (such as seeing Jesus in a piece of toast). Not that we necessarily give a personality to the ‘faces’ we see in outlets, for example, but sometimes I think that when we pattern recognize something as a face, we are more likely to anthropomorphize it. I wonder if there is any correlation between instances of pareidolia and grey matter?

  2. seseid20
    April 29th, 2017 at 20:57 | #2

    @Julia Parson
    Thank you so much! We do that in my house too! Actually the study about the cars kind of looked at that question… What’s interesting is that yes, we are seeing the faces and recognizing the patterns, but the study showed we are actually only using the fusiform face area when we do this. As in when you see a face on a car and give it a personality, the part of the brain that anthropomorphizes (the grey matter,) isn’t activated at all! However, it would be interesting to see if people have different sized fusiform face areas. I think the distinction between what is pattern recognition and what is simply our brain creating personalities is the coolest part of this bias.

  3. rtrobins
    April 30th, 2017 at 19:42 | #3

    I also think that this post was very interesting! I didn’t realize how common a thing anthropomorphizing is, but after reading this I can definitely think of many times when I have done this or witnessed it happening around me. While reading this post, I was reminded of synesthesia, or the blending of our senses. For example, some people inherently associate names of the week or numbers with specific colors. In a way, I think that these two things are somewhat similar – giving inanimate objects/ideas characteristics or personalities, so I was wondering if people who have synesthesia also have more grey matter in their brains. I also think what you said about its use in marketing was intriguing. The next time that I see commercials for products I am going to think more closely about how they are trying to make the product more likeable and attractive to the audience and how it relates to anthropomorphizing.

  4. ahnacc20
    May 6th, 2017 at 18:26 | #4

    I didn’t realize that this odd behavior is common enough to be recognized on the cognitive bias codex (I thought I was one of the only ones)! I appreciate that you took a more neurobiological approach to this bias, something that few people on this blog do; that stance and your amusing writing style really made your post stand out to me.
    From your description, I interpreted anthropomorphization as an extension of pareidolia, or the tendency for people to see faces in inanimate objects. However, instead of simply observing faces, we see other humanlike traits in everyday items. As you mentioned in your post, anthropomorphization concerns the fusiform face area, which is also instrumental in pareidolia and facial recognition as a whole. This leads me to think that, like face recognition, anthropomorphization is also heavily dependent on pattern recognition. Perhaps the gray areas of the brain assist in identifying patterns that relate to human characteristics in inanimate objects, even if they are not immediately obvious to us.
    Anthropomorphization also appears to be reliant almost exclusively on top-down processes in our minds; there are not many purely sensory inputs that would suggest that, say, a tree has a vibrant personality and a troubled past. We must be using our expectations and contextual information to draw these imaginative conclusions.
    Speaking of imagination, I wonder how one’s level of imagination activity relate to how often one anthropomorphizes. I would think that the more creative a person is, the more often and vivid his or her episodes of anthropomorphization are. It would be interesting to see how an artist’s experience with this cognitive bias would compare with that of an accountant.

  5. vmpaqu20
    May 8th, 2017 at 16:02 | #5

    This idea is especially interesting to me as a creative writer. Giving human attributes to non-human objects is really useful for metaphors because it helps readers visualize the descriptions better. Perhaps this is because multiple layers of mental representations–both the layer of the object and the comparison to the human attribute–enhance the mental image that one has while reading. It is certainly a way of applying meaning to our worlds through top-down processing, perhaps helping us make sense of objects or animal behaviors that would otherwise be unclear. It enables us to compare new information with information about our own species that we already know well. After all, we are excellent at recognizing and categorizing human responses and emotions even from a very young age!

    I wonder if individuals with prosopagnosia (that is, the inability to recognize faces) would have stronger or weaker anthropomorphism. Perhaps it would be stronger to make up for the lack of processing in the Fusiform Face Area, which, as you said, seems to be distinct from the grey matter related to Theory of Mind.

  6. smcramer
    May 12th, 2017 at 19:38 | #6

    I thought this post was super thought provoking and applicable to my life. I know for myself that whenever an object is dropped, my first instinct is to say “ow” to express the hurt the object is feeling, even though I know logically that the object is inanimate. This reminds me of the concept of pattern recognition which we studied in class. Do you think someone who has stronger pattern recognition would anthropomorphize more? Also, this reminded me of the theory of essentialism within categorization. If we assign inanimate objects with an essence that is more related to animate objects, we might be more likely to anthropomorphize as well. I also liked how you mentioned the findings within biological neuroscience to solidify the psychological impact.

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