People talk to their plants, pray to humanlike gods, name their cars, and even dress their pets up in clothing. We have a strong tendency to give non-human entities human characteristics (known as anthropomorphism) - but why?

Psychologists Adam Waytz from Harvard University and Nicholas Epley and John T. Cacioppo from University of Chicago examine the psychology of anthropomorphism.

The term anthropomorphism was coined by the Greek philosopher Xenophanes when describing the similarity between religious believers and their gods - that is, Greek gods were depicted having light skin and blue eyes while African gods had dark skin and brown eyes.

Neuroscience research has shown that similar brain regions are involved when we think about the behaviour of both humans and of non-human entities, suggesting that anthropomorphism may be using similar processes as those used for thinking about other people.

Anthropomorphism carries many important implications. For example, thinking of a non-human entity in human ways renders it worthy of moral care and consideration.

In addition, anthropomorphised entities become responsible for their own actions - that is, they become deserving of punishment and reward.

Although we like to anthropomorphize, we do not assign human qualities to each and every single object we encounter.

What accounts for this selectivity? One factor is similarity. An entity is more likely to be anthropomorphised the more similar it appears to humans (for example, through humanlike movements or physical features like a face).

Various motivations may also influence anthropomorphism. For example, lacking social connections with other people might motivate lonely individuals to seek out connections from non-human items.

Anthropomorphism in reverse is known as dehumanization - when humans are represented as non-human objects or animals, said a Harvard and Chicago release.

There are numerous historical examples of dehumanization including the Nazis’ persecution of Jews during the Holocaust and torture at the Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq.

These findings were published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

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