Words: Elle Griffiths
Most pet owners will relate to having a little one-way chat with their furry friend at some point. You might have caught yourself asking: ‘Did you miss me?’ when you get through the door after a day at work, or ‘How are you still hungry?’ after they’ve wolfed down a second bowl of food, or ‘Why are you incessantly miaow-ing at 4am?’
But if you’ve ever wondered if this might be a sign you're cracking up, fear not, scientists actually believe it is actually a sign of intelligence.
If you think back to childhood, it’s likely that you talked to pretty much everything. This is known as anthropomorphising – aka giving human attributes to non-human animals, plants, objects, and things.
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As it’s perceived to be a sign of immaturity in society, we train ourselves out of it as we grow up. But the urge never quite leaves us, and chatting away to animals and our pets like we know them as friends is a sign of an active imagination and intelligent personality.
Behavioural Science Professor Nicholas Epsey of the University of Chicago, explained: “Historically, anthropomorphising has been treated as a sign of childishness or stupidity, but it’s actually a natural byproduct of the tendency that makes humans uniquely smart on this planet.”
Speaking to Quartz, Epsey – widely believed to be the world authority on anthropomorphism – added that the phenomenon is part of a normal human drive to seek connection.
And this drive for connection is part of the reason we analyse our pets’ “complex” mental states and read their behaviour – much in the same way as we do with our fellow humans.
Epley even cites the famous relationship between Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away and inanimate volleyball ‘Wilson’ as an example of how the need to anthropomorphise becomes stronger and more powerful when we are lonelier and feeling isolated from human connection.
While studies have not yet explicitly proven the link between anthropomorphic tendencies and social intelligence, Epley is confident the connection is there.
“For centuries, our willingness to recognize minds in non-humans has been seen as a kind of stupidity, a childlike tendency toward anthropomorphism and superstition that educated and clear-thinking adults have outgrown.”
“I think this view is both mistaken and unfortunate. Recognizing the mind of another human being involves the same psychological processes as recognizing a mind in other animals, a god, or even a gadget. It is a reflection of our brain’s greatest ability rather than a sign of our stupidity.”
Images: Rex Features/Getty