Anthropomorphism. It’s a Not Bad Thing.

WM bhim anthroThis week I saw a comment on a great story about a mustang that credited the horse and rider’s success, but called the writing sentimental. I had to laugh; if she thought that story was sentimental, she’d hate my writing.  Then I got a bit defensive. Her use of the word sentimental felt like a rub–kind of like calling a capable woman a girl. It’s dismissive of something that I feel strongly about. And it’s wrong.

There’s a less diminutive word for sentimental. It’s that word so hard to remember or pronounce–anthropomorphism, meaning attributing human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities. In other words, calling yourself a Horse Mom or a Dog Dad.

The Wikipedia page gives a great short history. Modern psychologists generally characterize anthropomorphism as a cognitive bias, or a thought process people use to make generalizations about other humans or animals. It’s a knowledge acquired when we’re young, from our first fairy tales with a Big Bad Wolf, to every Looney Tunes rabbit, duck, or (Porky) pig. After that, every moment of Walt Disney, along with Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Doolittle, Animal Farm, and Kipling’s Jungle Book. It’s embedded in our minds since birth, if not sooner. It’s always been natural to use animals as parables for human life. Does that make it wrong?

“Anthropomorphism is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.” –Wiki

There is a negative connotation and a positive connotation; the problem with demeaning anthropomorphic perceptions is that it’s also the only way humans have to perceive things. Our only option is to look though the lenses of our human experience. When you think of it that way, anthropomorphism is hard to deny. Can we perceive the world as if we were a fish? Or as if we were God? Being human is the only experience we know; it’s honest.

And we’re in excellent company. Again, from Wikipedia:

The study of great apes in their own environment and in captivity has changed attitudes to anthropomorphism. In the 1960s the three so-called “Leakey’s Angels”, Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees, Dian Fossey studying gorillas and Biruté Galdikas studying orangutans, were all accused of “that worst of ethological sins – anthropomorphism”. The charge was brought about by their descriptions of the great apes in the field; it is now more widely accepted that empathy has an important part to play in research.

De Waal, whose research centers on primate social behavior, has written: “To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”

Nah, nah, nah-nah-nah. Because balanced perception involves intellect, but also intuition. The combination of heart and mind is always where truth lives. What’s un-natural is treating feelings and instincts as cold, dead facts.

And yes, it’s also noted that anthropomorphism can function as a strategy to cope with loneliness when other human connections are not available. Well, I do acknowledge guilt here. But being lonely isn’t a crime, and the reason so many of us do it, is that it works. As stated in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness animals do have emotions “not unlike humans.” It’s an affirmation; brain science has proved what most animal people have known forever, but it’s still important information for folks who use horses like dirt bikes.

Disclaimer:  Yes, some people go over the edge; there are saccharine, dewy-eyed, gushy people who cling desperately to an animal as dysfunctionally as a miser clings to his pennies.  But again, rather than dismiss the sentiment, in a way it’s a backhanded acknowledgment that it works as a coping mechanism. Still there is a difference between dressing up all the cats in doll clothes and making them sit at the dinner table and recognizing there is a sentient mind inside that Momma cat as she cares for her kittens.

Because we are all created of the same stardust, we have similarities with animals and we can form relationships and communicate with them. Some species more than others, but at this point no one denies the intelligence of birds, dolphins, and the domestic animals who joined us in our homes centuries ago.

It isn’t just that animals have human characteristics and behaviors that we recognize; humans have animal characteristics and behaviors that animals recognize, as well. Anthropomorphic behaviors work both directions. Doesn’t it seem like labradors are especially sentimental about humans? Especially really short humans, still too young to be cynical?

In my world, the term natural horsemanship has fallen on hard times. I always defined the term as communicating in horse language, learned by watching and listening. Then a bunch of men with sticks hit too many horses in the face and shook too many white bags. Maybe it was me that got desensitized, but I lost faith in that term as I’ve seen cold-hearted domination lower the level of communication with horses, in the same way it does between humans. Intimidation will never encourage the best answer.

But in spite of our shortcomings, I have not lost faith that communication between species is possible to do in an affirmative way. Call me an anthropomorphoristic idiot if you can pronounce it, but I will always believe that horses invite us. Is it possible that horses anthropomorphize, too, and see humans in their own reflection? Is it possible that I could become a Boss Mare in the best sense of their definition? It’s a lofty goal.

My horses and I speak different languages but we have found a common ground. I can’t say that my horses love me; I can’t claim that human thing that isn’t equine. But we do share a deep respect for each other, and a volunteered willingness to be together that can feel just like affection. Still, the hearts and flowers are my issue–chronically human as I am. I continue to aspire to that peaceful thing I witness when the herd stands together in the sun.

Go ahead, be dismissive of our so-called sentimentality, and then explain to me why some rider’s horse’s tuck their tails and pin their ears, while other horses dance with a pride and confidence that can lift human hearts. Explain why some humans, broken and belittled by their own species, find undeniable comfort and healing in the company of animals.

And when it comes to working with horses, I am more and more certain that whatever it is we think we’re training is not a fraction as important as the attitude we maintain in our minds, as well as our hearts.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

60 thoughts on “Anthropomorphism. It’s a Not Bad Thing.

  1. andrea pratt

    I completely agree, but also agree that anthromorphism as a maladaptive response is fine and even wonderful if it’s harmless. I know someone who attributes human motives to her dog’s bad behaviour as a way to let herself off the hook. (We’ve all heard “It’s because he’s a rescue dog/horse/cat…”) Fortunately the dog is well treated and not dangerous, so as a psychological coping mechanism it hurts no one unless it’s used as a way to dismiss dangerous behaviour or justify mistreatment.

    1. I agree. When we compare animals to all of our own worst habits, like being lazy or stupid, it degenerates the high side which is so valuable. It depends on the understanding in the human ears. It would be bad to throw the filly out with the bathwater. Or something. (Thanks, great comment and so true.)

  2. Anna: You are a fabulous writer and very perceptive–for a human that is. ( I say this after just reading that pigeons have a 99% success rate of discerning breast cancer on mammograms). I am a retired academic who has just recently returned to the horse world. Working around a dozen rescue horses has given me not only a new vocation but a new passion for all living creatures. Keep up the great posts. I enjoy them immensely!

    1. That’s my point…I didn’t know this about pigeons, also called flying rats by some lowlifes… Great comment, and welcome back to the horse world, happy to have you!

  3. Jo Matlosz

    well written Anna There are times when I know my horse knows me to the depth of my soul. We all have our own beliefs and truths . My husband new to actually sensing and seeing animals is just waking to the possibility that they do see us. He is just beginning to see the ark of communication. Horses saved me during a lonely childhood. They are my soul family and on some deep level I know I belong to them .

  4. Anna – I have admired your writing (and thinking) since I first came across your blog, but this post is transcendent.

    So much of the criticism of anthropomorphism, science-based as it claims to be, seems to overlook one simple fact. We are also animals. Human animals, and the self-appointed boss of all species, but animals none-the-less.

    My experience suggests that more time spent relating to / communicating with the other species has only improved my ability to relate to, empathize with and see things from the point of view of other humans.

    It’s not an either/or, but a both/and situation.

    Thanks for the beautiful post. 😀

    1. Exactly, our human arrogance doesn’t let us see the similarities all us animals have. And my human arrogance thanks you for agreeing with me. Heheheheh!

  5. Paula Romanow

    Thank you, Anna. I’ve been saying exactly this for many many years. As one who teaches communication stuff, I’ve been telling my students for years that we’re all animals, and that just because we don’t understand it, doesn’t mean that animals (or other things, sentient or not) don’t have language. My favourite philosopher of Communication, Michel Serres, says that even mountains have language, they just speak so slowly that us short-lived humans don’t usually
    live long enough to hear the end of the sentence. I like that idea. Anyone who has lived closely with an animal understands EXACTLY what they’re trying to say. The difference I think, is in recognizing that they’re communicating with us in the ways they know how. We of course translate it into “human” because that’s the only way, as you say, we CAN understand. And instead of using our understanding of their language (such as it is) to dominate, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we used it to live in harmony with them?

    1. What a great comment, especially waiting for the end of a mountain’s sentence. I recently went to a city I lived in years ago, and so much had changed, but maybe there was just more to the sentence than when I lived there. I have certainly contributed to the sentence my little farm is writing. Thank you for this wonderful awareness. Now I can practice being a prairie whisperer. 😉

  6. Maggie Frazier

    Wonderful post! Having become somewhat of a wild horse & burro advocate late in life – the most arrogant (thanks, anna) comment from ranchers & BLM is that the people who care about these wild anmals are “emotional”!!! As if thats the worst thing that we could be. Anthropomorphism (?) is beyond them! Being able to empathize with animals just makes my life better. I’m sure I’m not alone here in feeling more comfortable with animals than with some people – not here on this blog though.

  7. pishkeen

    Thank you Anna! I love your writing, and I love how you manage to find a middle path. I get frustrated when there seems to be only “us or them.” You always inspire me to breathe deeper, ask softer, listen longer.

  8. Dana Johnston

    Thank you for writing so clearly and poetically! I always smile when I open email to see there is something from you. As someone else has said, you do hit the middle path on the issue of anthropomorphism. Well done.

  9. Joan Spence

    I also agree. As you said, we are the “anthropes”, how could it be any other way? Do we chastise horses for being “equimorphic”? Of course not, we recognize it and adjust accordingly. I suspect horses are doing the same. I think that’s why my Peaches just stands there waiting for me to clarify my cues aka communication with her. Or sometimes to her (sorry Peachie-kins). Anyway, my point is, “Anthropomorphic? Der!”

  10. I have to admit, that I dressed a rooster up in dolls clothes and put him in stroller for a daily ride when I was about 5. I did not like playing with dolls, only animals. And I will swear to this day, that he ‘invited’ me to play with him in that manner. 😉

    1. I would trust the rooster. But now you have me wondering how many of “us” didn’t like playing with dolls. (I strung cardboard boxes together to make trains for my stuffed animals, so we could all go out and play with the live animals.)

      1. Paula Romanow

        I never thought about that!!! I was never interested in dolls, bt stffed animals? I had a zillion of them, all of whom were real to me. Need to think on this…..

      2. Maggie Frazier

        My thing was horse statues, horse books or anything to do with horses – from as far back as I can remember! Dolls? not so much

      3. My twin sister and I played with dolls, but only after we stripped them naked, so they could ‘run with the animals’ and in our games with them, the line between human/animal was always blurred.

  11. Lisa Brewer

    “Great” does not do justice to the insight in this essay. This is a keeper that I will share with friends. Beautiful thinking and writing. Thank you.

  12. Dan R. & Valerie Mathias

    Hi Dale. I hope you are done with all the “trials and tribulations ” of buying a ranch! I thought you might find the article interesting. We all miss you and hope yo see you again before too long. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

    Valerie and all the critters!

  13. OK For one male comment. I am in love with my mare. And I would ask anyone who does not think that is possible or healthy to spend some time with us. She is still frightened of too many things and we may never solve all of those. But the progress we have made for two “greenies” in the last year and a half is amazing. All the other horse people on the ranch are still amazed. There is only one answer, We are learning to trust each other at the deepest levels.

    1. Hey, Fred. Good to hear from you, it’s been a while. Trust is always the answer, you’re right, And I have no doubt you and your mare are the happily ever after sorts. Have a great winter–the two of you. are still in love with your mare, and

  14. I look at anthropomorphism like this: It’s a big mistake to think that horses (and other animals) are like us, but it’s an even bigger mistake to think that we are not like them. Some of the things that we consider “human” traits are not unique to humans- they are traits that we have in common with many or all other species. But there are many other ways in which different species ARE different from us. The problem is telling these two things apart. Scientists have been taught to lean over backwards to avoid anthropomorphism, which is downright silly when taken to extremes. On the other hand you have people like many of those who campaign against carriage horses. They don’t have the slightest idea of how a horse thinks or what his physical and mental needs are. They can’t name even one sign of distress in a horse, and yet they are convinced that the horses are miserable because THEY would be miserable living the life these horses live. It’s a true disconnect from understanding the life of a real living, breathing horse. Horses are just ideas to these people. I don’t think it’s true anthropomorphism if we recognize traits we have in common with horses or other animals. I think doing that is the opposite of anthropomorphism. By recognizing what we truly have in common, we recognize that they’re not “human traits”, but rather shared “living traits”. I think the subject of anthropomorphism is one of the most important issues of our time, for a number of reasons. Thanks for another thought provoking post.

    1. Living traits is a great term, and I agree that we fall on both sides of the line. I write about killing horses with kindness often, but the art is in the perception, all right. Just bring up blanketing… 😉 Thank you, thoughtful comment.

  15. I think a friend forwarded that same article to me, partly because I have a mustang. I didn’t like the “sentimental” label, either. I like a related word much better – sentient. I think we are all sentient beings, and as such, worthy of respect and relationship.

  16. Sabina

    Anna, my favorite favorite line in this profound post of your is,”Because we are all created of the same stardust…” If we, humans anchored most of our reference points to that vantage point… imagine…

    Now… If you want to see emotional, meet my 6 year old Taz…she is a precise mirror of my over reactivity and emotional nature that I know in my bones when I learn to mellow, so will she … Oh and let’s talk about Yoshi, our head mare’s heart is as wide as the world…and Khalil just grew out of his ornery teenager phase and has plunged into deeply trusting. How’s that for anthropormorphisizing?!

    Then there is Omar our eldest who emobodies Buddha nature – I wonder what that would be called….seeing Buddha-nature in everything…including animals…oh say it isn’t so!!!!

    anyway since we are all created of the same stardust….

  17. Fabulous read … made my day! I’ve always argued that anthropomorphism is not the bad thing it’s portrayed as, within the boundaries you mention. Seeing other animals as having emotions, is a way of having empathy – and how can that be a bad thing? And now science, as you said, is proving what some of us have known for decades!

    But you particularly caught me near the end, because I was one of those “humans, broken and belittled by their own species, find[ing] undeniable comfort and healing in the company of animals.” Proudly, I have been able to return the favor in some kind.

    Sentimentalists unite! 🙂

  18. Frances

    Hi Anna and friends!
    Loved, loved, loved your book, which I bought after reading your blogs. At last I’ve ‘found’ kindred being(s) who share my thoughts and passions!
    Best wishes to you all!!!
    (Oh, did I mention I loved your book …..?) x

  19. Great article! I agree that anthropomorphism is not nearly so bad as how it’s largely presented. That said, I also agree with several other commenters as to how there’s ‘real’ anthropomorphism, and then there’s ‘stigmatized’ anthropomorphism. The first is where we embrace the shared ‘living traits’ (as another commenter so awesomely deemed them) and the former is when we ignorantly apply personal thoughts or beliefs onto animals.

    I believe devoutly that special bonds are possible between animals and humans. The mare in my profile picture is one I had an amazing bond with, a ‘different’ sort of bond than average horse and rider. Something in each of our souls just belonged to the other, exactly the same as you might find with a pair of human best friends. To demean such bonds by calling them ‘sentimental’ simply because they involve an animal is to also decry any profound love and bond shared between humans as ‘superficially emotional’. The basis for those bonds is no different, or more easily reasoned out between two humans than they are between a human and an animal, thus those attachments shared with humans cannot be considered in any way a more ‘legitimate’ experience than those shared with animals are.

    1. I listened to a podcast and the speaker talked about consciousness (in people and animals) as the difference between being under anesthetic vs. not. We are all awake!

  20. Elizabeth Art

    Thanks so much for this post. You said many things that resonated with me, things I have thought but not put into words. I will print this one out and cherish it. 🙂

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