Our car is having some difficulty staying alive right now but we can’t get it into the shop for a few days. In the meantime, we still have places we have to go. So I’ve found myself talking to the car … a lot.
Come on, Old Faithful, you can do it! Get over this one hill and you can coast … please don’t shudder like that, you can make it, you’re almost there! is just one example of the running commentary in our car lately. The kids have even chimed in, and when we make it to our destination they’ll sigh with relief and say, “Good girl!” or “Good job, car!” and give it a pat as they climb out.
Talking to the car might be a new one for us, but we’re no strangers to anthropomorphizing. We all have conversations with our dog on a daily basis. Sometimes I’ll even take her part in the conversation, adopting what I imagine to be her slightly dopey dog-voice and giving earnest and idiotic responses. I usually remember not to do this when company comes over, but I’ve slipped a few times and gotten some odd looks.
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This is not a sign that I’m unhinged or even slightly kooky, though, at least according to Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. It’s a sign that I’m freaking brilliant.
“For centuries, our willingness to recognize minds in nonhumans has been seen as a kind of stupidity, a childlike tendency toward anthropomorphism and superstition that educated and clear-thinking adults have outgrown,” writes Epley. “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.”
Epley is the world’s foremost anthropomorphism expert — he wrote the actual book on it. As he recently explained in Quartz magazine, anthropomorphizing is a testament to humans’ unique intelligence.
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No other species has developed such extensive social cognition. The human ability to see and recognize faces is both exceptional and essential to our survival. It not only allows us to distinguish between friend and potentially fatal foe, but also helps maintain social order and cohesion.
That’s because we don’t just see the face, we see and recognize the mind behind the face, a crucial step in communication and social interaction. Evolution of human society is what allowed us to survive and thrive, and recognizing and reading faces is vital to the stability of society. It’s basically our superpower.
So the next time someone looks askance when you talk to your car or your dog, don’t be embarrassed … it’s proof that you’re an evolutionary superhero!