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Psychology: Perceiving Humanlikeness

Under what conditions do we attribute humanlikeness to nonhumans?

A living being isn't necessarily humanlike. That is, we can be animistic without being anthropomorphic. Here are some conditions for anthropomorphism, given animism.


Having a human face

Infants are born with a tendency to attend to symmetric, top-down shapes:

Over time, faces acquire emotional and social significance. People attend automatically to faces, and faces make objects seem more humanlike. In one of our studies, people rated the "humanlikeness" of robotic heads (see DiSalvo et al. below). Robotic heads with more facial features, and with a shape like that shown above, were rated as more humanlike.

Which is more humanlike?
Which is more humanlike


DiSalvo, C. F., Gemperle, F., Forlizzi, J, Kiesler, S. (2002). All robots are not created equal: The design and perception of humanoid robot heads. DIS Conference Proceedings, London, England, June 25-28. [PDF 2.1MB]

Turati, C. (2004). Why faces are not special to newborns: An alternative account of the face preference. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 5-8.


Physical appearance and social behavior

Physical appearance and social behaviorNot just faces, but other humanlike features, such as having a head, arms, or legs, increases anthropomorphism, especially when accompanied by "social" movements such as turning the head toward a person.

Bruce, A., Nourbakhsh, I., and Simmons, R. The role of expressiveness and attention in human-robot interaction. ICRA 2002. [PDF 178K]


Social context cues

All sorts of cues (stimuli) in the social environment can trigger anthropomorphism. Just naming an animal or object makes it seem more humanlike, especially when the name is a person's name. Many pet dogs are given people's names. Max, Wendy, and Larry are probably more likely to be anthropomorphized than Patches and Flip.

In the 1940s, Heider and Simmel made a silent cartoon animation [Quicktime 2.63MB, Flash 27KB, Editable 27KB]* in which two triangles and a circle move against and around each other and a diagram of a house. Virtually all people (except for autistic kids) make up a social plot in which the big triangle is seen as an aggressor. Studies have shown that the movements of the shapes cause automatic animistic perceptions. The movement of the shapes is very social and natural looking. When we speed up or slow the animation, or un it backward, the illusion of humanlikeness disappears.


Heider, F. and Simmel, M. (1944) An experimental study of apparent behavior. American Journal of Psychology, 57, 243–249.

* We thank our animators, undergrads at CMU. Kenton Kline created the original animations. Shirlene Lim further developed them.

Social interaction with objects and animals

We humans form mental models of ourselves and others during social interaction. Anthropomorphism involves a mental model in which the nonhuman (animal or object) is thought to have human attributes. For example, we may blame the animal or object for a mistake, thinking it intended to act as it did.

Interaction might increase the likelihood of anthropomorphic mental models because interaction consumes cognitive resources. Our attention is a limited resource. When we are interacting with an animal or object, we can't think intellectually about what is really going on, for instance, a biological or computer program. Instead we focus on what the animal or object is doing and automatically make attributions as we do with people.


Malle, B. F., and Pearce, B. E. (2001). Attention to behavioral events during interaction: Two actor-observer gaps and three attempts to close them. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 278-294.


Relationships and possession

We apply special significance to many objects we possess, and to animals and people with whom we feel close. A personal relationship with something or someone involves an emotional bond and a feeling there is less difference between them and us. This response, sometimes called "identification," and sometimes called "self extension" can make us prone to anthropomorphistic explanations, and to interpreting the other's behavior as sympathetic or positive.

If we are close to someone, we will take his perspective and see the world as he does, or assume that his behavior was motivated the way ours would have been motivated. We will see him less as a cardboard character and more complete with an inner life and pressures from the social situation and environment. His traits and motivations are something like ours. Hence, we can expect that our own cherished friend, pet, or product will be excused from any foibles and given credit for successes and benefits. We have begun studies on this topic.


Kiesler, T., & Kiesler, S. (2004). My pet rock and me: An experimental exploration of the self extension concept. Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XXXII (32). [PDF 611K]



Studies using people's ratings of animals have shown that people perceive animals to have personality traits. Some scientists think these traits are very much like human personality traits (for example, that there are extraverted dogs who are cheerful, like others, outgoing, energetic, and so forth). Others believe the apparent traits of animals are not comparable to human traits. For example, a friendly dog may like the people he meets, but is unlikely to seek out social relationships, parties, and group memberships as an extraverted person would. Nonetheless, we often attach traits to animals and objects when their behavior matches our stereotypes of these traits in people. Doing so is probably automatic. It helps us predict behavior and form expectations.


Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., and Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.

Goetz, J., Kiesler, S., & Powers, A. (2003). Matching robot appearance and behavior to tasks to improve human-robot cooperation (pp. 55-60). Proceedings. ROMAN 2003. The 12th IEEE International Workshop on Robot and Human Interactive Communication, Vol., IXX, Oct. 31-Nov. 2,, Milbrae, CA. [PDF 800K]

Gosling, S. D.; Kwan, V. S. Y.; John, O. P. (2003). A dog's got personality: A cross-species comparative Approach to personality judgments in dogs and humans. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 85, 1161-1169.

See more titles in the bibliography.

Next: Measuring Anthropomorphism


This website promotes understanding of anthropomorphism. Our work on these projects has finished, but the website will continue to be available as a community resource.