Anthropomorphizing. I love that word. I love it because I can pronounce it and because I’m an expert at it. I anthropomorphize all the time. People make fun of me because I anthropomorphize so much. At the same time, however, I can get irritated when I see someone else anthropomorphizing about something.
Webster defines anthropomorphize as “to attribute human form or personality to things not human.” In other words, when I’m gone on vacation and my cat has been cared for by others for many days, based on her behavior, I’m sure she is being upset, angry and standoffish upon my return. She’s punishing me for being gone. Most of my anthropomorphizing is with my cat, Kali, but there are many different examples of how people do it.
A well-known example of anthropomorphism is found in the Bible story of Adam and Eve, where the serpent is given the ability to talk to Eve, in order to tempt her to eat the forbidden fruit. Stories can be visually more appealing and possibly less threatening if the speakers are animals as in Peter Rabbit or Watership Down. Dressing a pet up in human clothes or other costumes may be an extreme form of anthropomorphism. Cute, but sometimes creepy.
There is no concrete way to know for sure how much, if any, human qualities an animal may experience. A look at associating human qualities to animals, in particular to our pets, has been the subject of lots of research trials trying to show the extent to which my cat Kali, for instance, is truly experiencing emotions of being upset, or feeling guilt or sadness. A recent test I saw on public television dealt with the possibility of a pet feeling guilt. You know, we’ve seen that look on their faces when they shred the toilet paper or steal food.
This is how the test was conducted: there is a dog sitting in an empty room. The dog’s owner comes in the room and places a treat on the floor and leaves. The dog just sits there. Shortly another person comes in the room and steals the treat and leaves the room. When the owner returns and scolds the dog, the dog looks guilty. The researchers concluded the dog was responding to scolding actions and voice, not necessarily feeling guilt.
But what about empathy? I’m sitting on the couch, Kali is in my lap and I’m watching the movie “Terms of Endearment” for the umpteenth time. When I start to quietly boohoo, Kali looks up at me and will lean in close to my bosom and reach her little paw out to touch my check. The look in her eyes tells me she’s thinking, “Oh, mom, don’t cry.” I KNOW that’s what she’s thinking.
Oh, yeah, good thing I know about anthropomorphism. Do you do it? Would you agree it's more than an unpronounceable word?