Bias number six is called anthropomorphism. This is a cognitive bias that human beings use to make judgements about their environment.
Specifically, human beings use their own experience as the basis of judgement for the experience of another non-human entity.
Have you ever heard a comment like the sea or sky is angry during a storm? How about your computer is playing up? Or the plant is sick?
Anthropomorphism bears a striking resemblance to personification, the literary device you’re probably already familiar with. Children’s books are full of anthropomorphic themes and plot lines.
Even marketing and product design strategies make use of anthropomorphism. Meerkats, anyone? Car bonnets that resemble human faces? Robots that blink and talk?
You get the picture. So what's the deal with anthropomorphism?
According to psychologist Adam Waytz, there are three factors that enable scientists to predict when people are more likely to anthropomorphise. They are:
When the amount of elicited agent knowledge is low and effectance and sociality are high, people are more likely to anthropomorphise.
This makes perfect sense. When you don’t understand your environment yet you have a desire to understand and connect with your environment, what serves as your reference point?
So what drives anthropomorphism? Waytz identifies a number of reasons, including the need for understanding and cultural ideologies. However, the two that jumped off the page at me were the need for connection and the uncertainty principle.
Are you beginning to see some critical themes in all biases? Fear and connection and the enduring conflict between the two?
On one hand, we want connection with people and our environment to quell the deep-rooted feelings of isolation. At an animalistic level, we have a tendency to be herd creatures.
On the other hand, the uncertainty around connection and the fear that uncertainty elicits keeps us stuck in our heads trying to work the environment out. It's this need to know that keeps us separate from our surroundings.
It is a deep wound felt by all of us at various stages of our lives. And so, to soothe the pain, we assign human qualities to non-human entities to help us feel as though we’re connected to something.
Do we always have to create intimacy with other human beings? No! Is it OK to develop strong bonds with creatures like our pets or objects like our car? Of course!
I've certainly been known to name my car. In fact, when my son was little, he christened our car Percy after one of his favourite Thomas the Tank Engine characters. We felt affection for that car and a sense of loss when it had reached the end of its life.
Is there a problem? Aren't biases supposed to be bad?
Bad is not quite the right word. It's just that biases are inaccurate and illogical ways of thinking. We kind of know it but we go along with it anyway because we want to feel good.
However, consider the case of advertising. People in areas of business like marketing, advertising and product design are more aware of your psychology than you are. Making a car with human traits makes it more desirable because the friendly "face" helps us relate to a pile of metal and rubber in a way that is logically more appropriate for our loved ones. It’s a clever trick, and it is mostly harmless.
When does it become a problem? When certain agents actively manipulate your thoughts to gain consent from you. Let’s take the case of robots. Very rarely do you see real robots in advertising campaigns. If you did, you wouldn’t have the warm, fuzzy feeling that you do when you watch Bumble Bee in Transformers or R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars.
Real robots, for the most part, look nothing like humans.
So why are robots depicted with human characteristics? Anthropomorphising robots by giving them endearing human qualities creates the effect of having you warm to them as harmless, helpful creatures.
It’s a way of gaining your consent for the whole idea of robotics itself.
Some people predict that robots will eliminate millions of manufacturing jobs around the world. Others offer a view that claims the robotics revolution will create as many jobs as it destroys.
Who is right?
No one knows for certain. What’s important here is not what the future will hold but how your consent for a robotic future direction is being obtained through anthropomorphism.
The use of anthropomorphism is designed to elicit a positive response in you. If you feel positively towards a product, a genial connection even with that product, you’re more likely to remember it and buy it.
Advertisers have known this for years. It is especially effective with children, but adults are also susceptible to it.
So, what’s the benefit of knowing this? Well, if you are creating a marketing campaign, you may want to centre your campaign around an anthropomorphic theme. If you do, let me know if it’s effective.
I would recommend that you do it with care, though. Anthropomorphic marketing campaigns can have unexpected and sometimes unfortunate consequences. Just ask Volvo. (For more information, read here: https://www.ideasforleaders.com/ideas/why-anthropomorphism-works-in-marketing)
There is a flip side. Begin to notice where yours (and your children’s) buying decisions are being swayed by the cute little talking elephant or teapot on the screen. Remember that the technique has only one purpose — to get you to buy, or in some cases buy into, a product or a concept.
Remember that your psychology is consciously being manipulated all the time. When you know this, you can make a conscious choice to boost your knowledge about the elicited agent. Take a breath and dive deeper into the product or concept itself. Make decisions based on fact and not on a false emotional connection.
Don't be a sucker for an anthropomorphic ploy. Master your psychology. Make brilliant decisions as a result.