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Anthropomorphism: Maybe Cows Really Do Stand Upright When We’re not Looking

25 Oct

I know my dog loves me deeply.  Why else would he crap on my pillow when he doesn’t get enough attention?  At least that is my anthropocentric interpretation.

Gary Laron's Cows - from 'The Far Side'

Gary Laron's Cows - from 'The Far Side'

There are countless examples of our tendency to attribute human characteristics to animals, objects, and natural phenomena.  From storybook characters, to political satire, to hurricances, we constantly resort to human experiences and feelings to describe and explain the world around us.  Gary Larson, the acclaimed cartoonist that brought us “The Far Side”, adroitly uses anthropomorphism “to create an epistemological mirror in which we may witness, while we eat our breakfast, our own supposedly scientific knowledge, our own fears, stupidity, and lack of instinctual knowledge”, as David Lavery puts it in his essay entitled Aesop After Darwin: The Radical Anthropomorphism of “The Far Side”Lavery concludes by observing “To be human… is, quite simply, to be unnatural, sometimes ridiculous.”

It’s easy to ridicule anthropomorphism as yet another human foible, but many studies have supported the notion that animals have legitimate emotions, similar to humans.  For example, Stefan Anitei recounts in her article Human Behavior Found in Animals an observation by researchers in which a wolf limped back to its den after suffering a deep wound to its shoulder.  For several days afterward, the researchers observed another black male wolf entering the den and regurgitating large chunks of meat for the incapacitated animal, repeating this behavior until the wounded individual could rejoin the pack.  Sarah Etter, at, states that “All mammals, including dogs, have a ‘pleasure center’ in their brains that is stimulated by dopamine, the chemical that regulates feelings of happiness.”  Since this brain chemistry is the same in humans, she speculates, it is reasonable for us to assume that animals and humans share emotional similarities.  Etter goes on to quote the esteemed primatologist Jane Goodall as saying “From a behavioral perspective, it only makes sense that animals would experience emotions … Social animals must be able to read other animals in their society and must be able to maintain social bonds.”  Indeed in comparative psychology and ethology, animal behavioral studies have been used extensively to better understand human interactions (see, for example, this article at

Despite this, we can sometimes go too far.  In the blog, an open forum for the public to present their queries to other visitors, one contributor questions if her excessive empathy toward inanimate objects is ‘weird’.  For example, she cried for a Christmas tree erected in a town that was criticized by the citizens as being ‘shabby’, and ‘a poor excuse for a tree’.  Respondents also contributed examples, including a person who “used to make beds for my various writing implements from tissues, lest they have to be subjected to the cold of the desk”.  At, a support website for people and families with autism and other neurological differences, excessive empathy for animals and objects is cited as being common within this community, as shown in this forum thread.  In nearly all of the cases, though, this tendency to over empathize did not usually negatively impact their ability to function in their daily lives.

Being the fickle creatures that we are, humans seem to be selective when it comes to anthropomorphizing.  Rick Nauert, at, summarizes in his review article that “An entity is more likely to be anthropomorphized if it appears to have many traits similar to those of humans (for example, through humanlike movements or physical features such as a face).”  He also speculates that lack of social connections with other people “might motivate lonely individuals to seek out connections from nonhuman items.”  A. Horowitz, in an excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Interactions, theorizes that anthropomorphism is a mechanism to bring familiarity to an uncertain world.  A child, he states, “uses animism… to make sense of the sensory chaos of his environment…”  Horowitz also cites human similarities as being an important characteristics of anthropomorphizing, and uses frogs as an example of a creature with poor human similarities.  Frogs, therefore, are good candidates for the dissecting table in biology classes, due to the lack of empathy they garner from the pupils.

A curiosity is why we seem much less likely to zoomorphize, which is the opposite tendency – that is, to view an object or human being as having animal features and characteristics.  After all, we are just animals, sharing much of the same brain biology as other mammals.  Instinct, which is an accepted trait in animals, has become an unacceptable explanation for any human behavior.  Compelling examples in animals such as migration, imprinting, and body language do not seem to have corresponding analogs in the human world.  In the WikiPedia article on this subject, the psychology establishment has gone from accepting 4000 instinctual characteristics for humans at the end of the 19th century, to being superfluous in the study of human behavior during modern times.

Wilfred on FX

Wilfred on FX

In any case, I will continue to interpret my dog’s behavior as if he was a human child.  And I will continue to believe that he loves me, which some authors dispute.  In her article, Etter quotes Fred Metzger, a veterinarian and guest lecturer at Penn State, as insisting that animals do not love in the same sense as humans.  Dogs, he says, make emotional bonds with anyone that can provide them something in return.  “If we moved our dogs to our neighbor’s house,” he asserts, “and that neighbor gave the dogs as much as we gave them and in the same motivational forms, I believe our dogs would adapt to the new life and would become as loyal to the neighbor as they were to us.”  This sounds a lot like how people describe their ex-wife or ex-husband… hmmmm.

Avatar Authenticity – It’s Better AND Worse Than You Think

27 Sep


Author's Avatar in Sony Playstation Home (I think I have more hair than that guy)

Let’s see… if the Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMO) that I am playing has well over 30% female avatars, but I know that 85% of the users are male…  Wait a minute… Half of those chicks have d**ks!

Statistics like this (see The Daedalus Gateway website by Nick Yee) initially seem to reinforce our suspicions of online environments, where predators lurk and false personas abound.  However, MMOs like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and other console titles continue to grow their online following as these other worlds provide beautiful graphics and unique, immersive gaming experiences.   Other virtual worlds, like Second Life and Sony Playstation Home, are more socially oriented and attract higher percentages of female participation, but activities like mini-games, dancing, exotic locations, and in-game entertainment still provide the framework to facilitate the interactions.  Still other applications are emerging in the business world, including IBM’s Virtual Collaboration, and Microsoft’s Avatar Kinect, which avoid the heavy bandwidth requirements and associated choppiness of video conferencing displays.  Central to each, though, is a 3D character that is controlled and customized by the user, called an avatar, that represents the user within the virtual world.

Such virtual situations are ripe for abuse and deception, so I was surprised to learn that the majority of people actually try to represent themselves honestly within these environments.  In a review article by Christian Jarrett, references are cited confirming that behaviors such as personal space, eye contact, sexual mores, and racism are exhibited in the virtual world, just as they are in real life.   And on The Deadalus Gateway website, researcher Nick Yee supports this conclusion and presents data showing that most respondents claim that their online avatar behaves similarly to themselves in real life, with older players and women behaving most consistently between worlds. 

There is also evidence that players prefer avatars that resemble themselves, including a study by Nowak and Rauh at the University of Connecticut who conclude that players prefer avatars that match their real world bodies in terms of gender, hair color, race, and perhaps even sexual orientation and hobbies.  Also, in an informal poll conducted by one user on the Sony Playstation Home forums, only about 20% of respondents considered the appearance of their avatar to be very different from reality.  About 56% considered their avatars to accurately resemble themselves, within their artistic abilities and system limitations, while the majority of the remaining respondents still indicated a desire to present themselves accurately, but did not want to expend the effort trying to get it just right.  Yee summarizes his findings by stating that introverted people tend to create avatars that are projections of themselves, albeit sometimes idealized, while extroverted people are more likely to experiment with their identities online.

Also, according to Yee, a full 80% of users play online with at least one person that they know in real life.  Therefore, any persistent deception would ultimately be exposed as most time spent online is either with people known to you in real life, or known by you for an extended period of time through meaningful online interactions.

Oddly, Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University have performed experiments showing that people can people take on real-life characteristics of their virtual avatars.  Participants who were given tall avatars in a virtual world were more likely to negotiate aggressively in a subsequent real-world bargaining task.  Furthermore, people assigned more attractive avatars in the virtual world were found to select more attractive partners in a later dating task.  The authors called this phenomenon The Proteus Effect, after the Greek god that was able to change forms at will. 

Jarrett’s review article also cites evidence of The Proteus Effect, and speculates that it can be used therapeutically.  He cites studies in which online avatar communication patterns between people with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome are little or no different from similar communications between “neurotypical” people.  Virtual worlds are also very popular with people with disabilities, allowing them to experience activities in a highly personalized manner that they otherwise would not be able to experience in real life.  He goes on to state that remote counseling and treatment of disorders like phobias can also benefit from this technology, encouraging fellow psychologists to pursue these applications further.

The Guild Cast

Despite the general profession of honesty online, it is blatantly clear that the obesity epidemic that plagues western societies has not afflicted the virtual world, so some level of embellishment is afoot.  Therefore, caution is recommended when venturing online, just as in the real world, and this is particularly true if you are female.  This link to a video by Sanii Mandred is a light-hearted, but disturbing, look at the type of harassment that your female avatar may experience.  Also, this seemingly unavoidable persistence of boys behaving badly is also satirized in the web series The Guild, and the hilarious music video entitled “Do You Wanna Date My Avatar”.

Finally, in the documentary Life 2.0, director Jason Spingarn-Koff explores the good and bad aspects of human interactions in Second Life, such as marriages, affairs, entrepreneurship, and addictions, including one anonymous adult male who portrays himself online as a little girl… hmmm.  Ultimately, it seems, people present a façade of their choosing, whether it is online or in the real world.

Cindy Brady Syndrome

17 Aug

Jan Brady With WigJan! Jan! Jan!  Am I the only one tired of middle children bemoaning their status, as if it was a birth defect for which they should be perpetually pitied?  I believe that birth order does indeed impact our lives, but there are down sides for each sibling rank, not just the Jan Bradys of the world.

I have been sensitive to this issue for a long time since one of my brothers, a middle child, has voiced complaints about his position for quite some time.  Several years ago, during one of his whining sessions, I decided that an apt nickname for him would be ‘Jan’.  He was not happy with this moniker, but our eldest brother and I found it endlessly amusing, adding to our arsenal of jibes that we use to keep our sibling in his place.

This affliction is officially known as Middle Child Syndrome, and is also drolly referred to as ‘Jan Brady Syndrome’.  A search of the web and other blogs will produce hundreds of articles on this subject (see for example Seven angels, four kids, one familyLarger Families, The World Outside, and Roland’s Ramblings), so please take a look at these sources.  The Middle Child Personality blog, for example, claims that middle children are prone to low self-esteem, jealousy, and a desire to seek attention and approval.   Additionally, an article by Bègue and Roché asserts that there is evidence that middle children are more likely to be juvenile delinquents.  However, others point out that ‘middles’ are more likely to branch out, away from parental expectations, creating their own path on which they thrive and excel.  Indeed, the middle children of my family have done well, financially better off than or equal to their oldest and youngest brothers.

Bègue and Roché go on to conclude that their observed differences due to birth order, or ordinal position, are partly an artifact of “differential parental control” – Duh!!!  And the Middle Child Personality blog cites “identity crisis and lack of emotional support” as possible causes.  Still others, like Judith Rich Harris, a psychology researcher, believe that birth order personality effects are only important within the dynamics of the family, and not a significant factor otherwise in life.  All agree, though, that there are many other factors such as gender, social/economic status, and genetics that influence our personality much more substantially than birth order.

Firstborns are also impacted by their ordinal position, and a review article by Dattner Consulting cites studies showing that they tend to enforce the status quo, often seeking to fulfill the expectations of their parents, while emphasizing rules, authority, and tradition.  They also tend to be less open-minded and structure-oriented.  On the positive side, firstborns are often more intelligent, and exhibit excellent leadership traits, which is especially true for firstborn women, and they are over-represented in the population of world leaders.  And, of course, firstborns generally are not forced to wear hand-me-downs.

Cindy Brady UnhappyAs for myself, I am a ‘Cindy’.  Apparently, my kind are spoiled, have no sense of responsibility, and suffer from inferiority complexes.  Lastborns are under-represented in the population of world leaders, and we tend to be less intelligent since we do not have younger siblings with whom to explicate our knowledge base, which is called the “Tutor Effect”.  But wait, there’s more.  Lastborn males with older brothers are also more likely to be homosexual, with each older brother increasing a man’s odds of being gay by 28-48%, WTF!?!   (see “Fraternal Birth Order and Male Sexual Orientation” in Wikipedia).   There may be a biological basis for this, having to do with male fetuses producing an antigen in the womb, inducing the mother to produce antibodies that impact future male babies.  Screwed again by my older brothers!

Therefore, I suffer from ‘Cindy Brady Syndrome’, and deserve sympathy for enduring such regrettable circumstances, due to no fault of my own.  To quote the Marcia Brady character in A Very Brady Sequel, “This is all Jan’s fault!”

Woody Allen and Multiple Selves

27 Jul

Woody Allen Zelig movie posterBefore starting his long career writing, directing, and starring in movies, Woody Allen was a stand-up comic.  And, by chance, I happened to catch a snippet from his act on the radio where he made a joke that has stayed with me for several decades.  True to his neurotic persona, the joke went something like this, “I went to college, briefly, but I was kicked out for cheating on a metaphysics exam… I was caught looking into the soul of the guy next to me.”  His delivery was much better, of course, but this simple quip emphasizes the reality that we all look to others to help shape our concept of ourselves.

Social psychologists have performed numerous experiments to study this condition of human nature, and they have shown that others can influence our self-concept either directly through their behavior towards us, or indirectly as we compare ourselves to those that we observe.  In the first case, who hasn’t had their self-esteem boosted or dashed by a comment or facial expression from a parent, spouse, teacher, boss, etc.  As an example of the latter, I feel emasculated in the gym when I see some buff macho man bench press 300 pounds, but later I will stand with my chest out and my hands on my hips like superman after swinging my 3 year old grandson around in circles.  When we walk into a bar, each of us evaluates how we will be perceived.  Men check out the women to determine if they have a chance.  Women check out the women to determine if they have a better chance.

Woody Allen's Zelig as an IndianTaking this further, it seems that we also exhibit different personal characteristics depending on our environment.  Apparently, our self-concept is different at home than it is at work, or when we are on a date, or playing sports, and so on.  I know this to be true since I am generally a very quiet person in most social situations.  I was the youngest of four boys, so I found it difficult to get a word in growing up, and, being less experienced, had less to contribute anyway.  However, in a few situations I find that I cannot shut up.  This is usually when I find that I am viewed as the expert in the room on a particular subject, or when I am among good friends, with whom I am completely comfortable and feel to be of equal standing.

The accomplished Mr. Allen again provides insight into this phenomena, as his 1983 film Zelig addresses this subject in a very humorous manner.  The movie is a mockumentary about a man that has the ability to change his appearance, speech, and demeanor to fit in with whomever he is interacting with.  Through hypnoses, his psychiatrist, played by Mia Farrow (yes, this was a long time ago), reveals that this disorder is the result of his strong yearning for approval from those around him.  If you haven’t seen the film, please give yourself a treat and watch it.