It is not uncommon to hear perfectly reasonable, rational people having a conversation with their pet. So is that weird or what?

I choose, “or what?”

People (researchers at the University of Chicago with National Science Foundation funding, to boot) have studied the issue and some of the findings are remarkable. What researchers came up with in 2007 was a three-factor theory of anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is the tendency to bestow real or imagined behavior to nonhumans, with human-like characteristics, motivations, intentions or emotions. Even though this behavior is very common among humans toward say, their pets, it is not a monolith of human behavior. People choose how they want to anthropomorphize and when.

What the researchers discovered was three psychological factors influence when a person bestows imaginary human-like traits to a nonhuman entity.

People must have some awareness and understanding of human beings as the most important element of existence, called anthropocentrism. They also have to have a motivation to explain and understand the behavior of nonhumans. Then, they are people who desire social contact and affiliation with others.

At its base, anthropomorphism is an act of humanization. So consider sailors calling a ship, “she,” and describing her structure as “good bones.” Similarly, then we tend to follow with a moral value, too: “She’s too good of a ship to capsize on me.”

We want to humanize things we have an attraction to and that we like. It then makes it easier to express affection and explain it to our peers.

And the opposite is also true to a significant degree. We dehumanize things we don’t like, including other groups of people. Doing so makes it easier to eliminate their moral agency and do inhumane things to them.

Recently, I have been taking my dog to an off-leash area, and I noticed the pets love the ability to romp and play and even do so together with “strangers.” So far, I have seen nothing but exemplary behavior among the pooches.

The people are friendly and extend to stranger humans without effort. They tend to stratify into a younger people in say their 20s to 30s and the much older in our 60s, 70s and even 80s.

When owners introduce their pets, they definitely slip into talking as though they are little furry people. Throwing tennis balls for the bigger dogs seems to be the primary activity. The smaller dogs do less athletic things but get some exercise and socialization.

My dear wife is a nurse. She talks about our dog and cat as having “arms and legs,” not fore limbs and hind limbs. We tease one another about the differences.

Paws are hands and claws are nails to her. That’s her profession coming through though. She is used to humanizing all patients and looking past any defects or fallacies we bring with us and focusing instead on our needs. Perhaps it’s time we all spent a little more time humanizing each other as well as we do our pets?


Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email cpowell@vetmed.wsu.edu.

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