Anthropomorphism: The interpretation of Animal Behavior  as Human Behavior

AAnthropomorphicnthropomorphism is an addiction. But please don't be put off. It is about one of the most common addictions in the world, an addiction suffered by probably 99% of all people that work with animals and certainly, almost everyone who doesn't. . Like all addictions it is very powerful (addictive) because it is very rewarding - and sadly, like all addictions, it is very damaging not only to ourselves, but also to those around us. This addiction costs us billions every year, globally it has spawned multi-billion dollar industries to feed our passions, on a personal level, it frequently consumes all our time, our relationships and our resources. Our passion and fascination with this addiction can  last a lifetime and many of us are prepared to devote our lives to the pursuit of the pleasure that it gives us.

And yet...

All over the world it is the root cause of all kinds of human and animal suffering, and every year, globally, hundreds of humans and hundreds of thousands of animals die because of it. And the strangest thing about it all is that, most people don't even realise they are addicted. Most people are totally blind to the fact that it even exists! What is the name of this curse? It is anthropomorphism.

For those of you who didn't even know there was such a thing, don't feel ashamed, millions of us don't,  in it's most basic form anthropomorphism is:  the human tendency to interpret animal behaviour as human behaviour, as simple  as that.

By now you are probably thinking, 'Oh no! Not another thing to feel bad about, and this time it 's something I didn't even know existed!! (and even if you did know, perhaps you didn't know it was bad). It just isn't fair.' I quite agree with you, after all, I have to confess that I am a reformed addict myself. But dear reader, bear with me, this is not an article that will tell you what a terrible person you are, or what a cruel and indifferent human being you have become, far from it, I hope, it is an article that will guide and enlighten you and help you break out into a new world of freedom and understanding with all animals but especially that most devoted of domestic animals our horses. But right now I expect you are wondering why I say:

Anthropomorphism is an addiction?

Humans love anthropomorphism. No! They really, really love anthropomorphism! From our earliest days we are showered with anthropomorphic toys, pink crocodiles, teddy bears and cute, cuddly, blue hippos etc., etc.  Usually babies get toys that are anthropomorphic representations of animals a long time before they get their first human-like doll, so it is no wonder we grow up with anthropomorphic ideas about the world. Then there is all the media that we are exposed to. At the time of writing, in the UK we are being bombarded with messages to buy 'cheap car in-sh-o-o-rance' by a meerkat millionaire! Complete with a Russian accent, who lives in a mansion. It is one of the most popular advertisements of all time! Anthropomorphism sells because we are addicted to it.

There is also a whole genre of TV programs where viewers send in their clips and movies of their pets 'doing the funniest things'. In almost every case the humour of the clip is based on animal behaviour that looks like human behaviour. This is pure anthropomorphism. It is deeply ingrained in our minds almost from day one. So why is anthropomorphism so appealing and so universal in humans?

It is because anthropomorphism works directly with our emotions.

Almost all addictions work this way, if you are addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, drugs, or even work, you are addicted at an emotional level and that is why no amount of reasoning and logic will get you unhooked.  Take the example of one of the most addictive food additives we are exposed to, sugar. I'm sure you have never done this(!), but perhaps you know someone who has! Have you (or your 'friend') ever sat down with a new box of chocolates and thought: 'Oh, I'll just have one'. And an hour later the box is empty? This is because of something that behaviourists call 'positive reinforcement'. Sugar is highly positively reinforcing. A reinforcement  is something that is emotionally enjoyable and so we want more of it. We like the taste of chocolate (an emotion) so we are reinforced to repeat/reinforce the behaviour until all the chocolates are gone. Logically we know we have just exceeded our recommended daily sugar intake by many times, we know that our bodies will now convert all this extra sugar energy to fat, we know we might be risking obesity, diabetes, heart disease but we just can't help it, then of course we feel guilty, - a negative emotion, and the best way to make ourselves feel better? Find some more positive reinforcement  such as.... more chocolate. This is addiction.

Most people that deal with animals are addicted to anthropomorphism. Now I am not saying they are 'bad' people, far from it, most of them have nothing but benevolent, kind feelings for the animals that they genuinely care for. Most of the highly anthropomorphic horse and dog owners that I have met are among the nicest and most dedicated human beings it is possible to meet. If this is so, why do I say anthropomorphism is bad? Well, it is because although these owners think they are being kind and thus rewarding to their animals, but anthropomorphism is NOT about rewarding animals:

it is about rewarding humans.

To put it another way, anthropomorphism reinforces humans emotionally by making them feel good about themselves. This means that it then becomes possible to completely ignore the thoughts, feelings, instincts and emotions of the animal, as an animal, and replace them with emotional beliefs about them as human beings.

Treats and Stuff!

A good example of this is the human tendency to 'reward' their animals with treats. Actually treats may or may not be rewarding to the animal but it doesn't matter, treats are not about  rewarding the animal they are about rewarding the human. Taking a horse as an example let's take the typical treat-aholic and let's say to them, 'Carry on with the treats and even give them more if you want, but here is the rule, instead of just dishing out treats randomly throughout the day, I want you to give them all at once by adding them to the normal daily bucket feed'.

Most treat-aholics' will think about this for a moment and then say, 'but what is the point? I would just be giving them a load of food that they didn't want or need and then they would get fat'. What we have done here is take away the human (emotional) reinforcement. If the human got no pleasure from giving out treats they would no longer feel any need to do it. Therefore treats are never a 'reward' for the horse, they are always a reward for the human.

Of course treats don't have to be just food rewards, most animal owners also reward themselves by buying their animal 'possessions'. They love to buy their horse a new colourful stable rug or their dog some new toys, there is an endless list of 'stuff' you can buy for your animal, this is literally a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. Quite plainly animals have no concept of ownership or possession of material things, yet millions of us spend billions of Pounds, Dollars, Euros and Yen to buy stuff for our animals, why? Because it gives us good feelings.

Another bizarre aspect of this behaviour is the people who want to buy their animal's affection with material things. Most horse owners for example, want more than just functionality from their horse, they want friendship, companionship, loyalty even love from their relationship with their horse. So they try to 'buy it' with material things, they think the horse will 'love' them because they  make these purchases. And behaving like this, - (it's called shopping by the way) is positively reinforcing so even if the horse doesn't like the items they still get positive reinforcement, they can't lose.

You might have noticed humans frequently behave like this with other human beings, especially children!

These emotional qualities are all noble and desirable things but of course they are also highly anthropomorphic.

 Having said that, it is quite possible for horses to develop a  relationship with certain special humans that is at least, something along these lines, but never with owners who are anthropomorphic. These  special relationships are always based on trust and respect for the horse as a horse, they come from the horse to us, not the other way round. They are formed when a human proves to a horse that they make trustworthy decisions, decisions are always based on emotions, so that human has trustworthy emotions, out of this trust is born respect for the humans actions based on their decisions and if trust and respect are in place there is a least the possibility that the horse will actually come to be rewarded by  human company in the same way that it is rewarded by the company of horses. That is the beginning of what can be achieved with horses and that is the real pay off for the 'special' human and the 'special' horse. One thing though is absolutely guaranteed, this relationship can never be bribed out of a horse by the purchase of material items and they can never be wished into existence by giving the horse special treats. So if you really want to get good with horses the first step is to kick your addiction to anthropomorphism.