Tag Archives: anthropomorphism

When Humans and Dogs Collide

They say that many dog owners look like their pets. Dr. Lance Workman from Bath Spa University (just up the road from me) tested this out with a study to see if people could match 70 dog owners to their breed of dog. Apparently the hit rate was well above chance between 50-60% compared to 33% (I guess that will be choose one photograph from three then!).

Spot the dog

Spot the dog


We also have a tendency to attribute human qualities to non-human beings. This video made for the Athens Olympics shows what happens when anthropomorphism and human assimilation collide.


Filed under Essentialism, Weird Story of the Week

Cheesus, It’s Just a Type 1 Error

cheesus2Dan and Sara Bell have seen Jesus again. Once more, he has appeared in a convenience snack. In this case, the deity appears in the form of a “Cheeto” – a rather disgusting corn-based munchie from the US that sticks to the roof of your mouth and clogs the gaps in your teeth. We covered this tendency of seeing the divine in an earlier blog on pareidolia where Jesus turned up on the backside of a dog. No doubt, Dan and Sara will try their luck on eBay where other examples of divine apparitions in snacks such as cheese toasties and pizzas have sold for silly money. 

This nonsense bring me to Michael Shermer’s piece in this month’s Scientific American about what he calls “patternicity” – the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. (He also gives, “SuperSense” a good plug in the article so I am hoping this mention will drive some of his readers over here). Patternicity is the consequence of a brain that automatically seeks out structure in the environment, looking for significant events. This tendency is particularly strong in the case of detecting people and faces as our brains readily interpret all manner of random configurations as evidence for others. As the Scottish philosopher Hume said, “We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds.”

The psychologist Stewart Guthrie has argued that this is a perceptual bias that means we are trip-wired to detecting the presence of potential enemies even when the evidence is so weak. It is better to assume that someone is hiding in the bushes rather than ignore them. So if you see a face in the bushes when there is none, this is know as a Type 1 error because you have inferred the presence of something which is not really there. On the other hand, if you ignore the face in the bushes when there really is an enemy hiding in there then that would be a Type 2 error. The evolutionary argument is that it is better to make a Type 1 error than a Type 2 error because the consequences of ignoring the evidence of a potential enemy are much greater than assuming that someone is there.

However, I don’t think you necessarily need an evolutionary argument based on potential threat for the person bias. All the evidence suggests that newborns (human and monkey) have built-in mechanisms for paying extra attention to faces so we are supersensitive to any face-like pattern to begin with. We even have special face processing areas in the visual parts of our brain. So having a perceptual bias could arise from a variety of different advantages, not necessarily enemy-detecting.

Shermer’s discussion of Type 1 and Type 2 is very relevant to one of my arguments developed in SuperSense – namely that individual propensity to supernatural belief is supported by their interpretation of ambiguous evidence. You can test this by presenting people with computer tasks where they have to detect a faint pattern that may or may not be present among random noise.

Individuals who score highly on scales that measure supernatural belief are also more likely to make Type 1 errors compared to those who score low on such measures who make Type 2 mistakes. So we vary in our susceptibility in detecting evidence and how we interpret it. If you already have a strong belief that there are significant patterns out there, then you will more readily find evidence for it. Beautiful theory, isn’t it. I can easily see all the evidence to support it! Or that might be my SuperSense at work.


Filed under book publicity, In the News, Research

Parrots Can Dance (but not Professors)

In a new study just out in the journal Current Biology, researchers at Harvard University has analysed over 1,000 youtube videos of dancing animals and concluded that at least 14 types of parrot and possibly one elephant have got rhythm. Here is the classic footage of the most famous cockatoo dancer, Snowball.

Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, who led another study of Snowball’s performance, said that the bird had demonstrated an ability to adjust the tempo of his dancing to stay synchronized to the beat. 

In the scientific paper entitled, “Spontaneous motor entrainment to music in multiple vocal mimicking species,” Adena Schachner working with my old friend and colleague Marc Hauser, make the interesting conclusion that the capacity for vocal mimicry (as in the case of parrots) can provide the basis for synchronized movements, namely rhythmic dancing.

How ironic that academic professors who may have the capacity to research and write about synchronized movements are the least coordinated at the post-conference disco. You know who you are!


Filed under Research

What’s The Meaning of Life?

monty-pythons-the-meaning-of-lifeOne of the striking features of the human mind is that we seek reason and purpose for all manner of phenomena. This tendency to see purpose in the world is known as teleological reasoning…. In other words, “What’s it for?”

The trouble is that when we apply such reasoning to the natural world then we fall into the trap of regarding everything as being designed and hence we are susceptible to creationism.

That’s the theory of my friend Deb Kelemen at Boston University. She has just published a paper in “Cognition” where she reports a study where adults had to rate the following sorts of statements as true or false.

• Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil

• Mites live on skin to consume dead skin cells

• The Sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesise

• Earthquakes happen because tectonic plates must align

When they were put under rapid time constraints, adults were significantly more inclined to adopt the teleological stance. When they had ample time, they were still more inclined to endorse teleological interpretations, especially those related to the design of the Earth. It did not matter whether they were believers or not.

She also found with colleagues Tania Lombrozo and Deborah Zaitchik similar patterns of intuitive biases in aging populations with Alzheimer’s Disease. I also wonder whether this is related to Dan Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ where humans deliberately anthropomorphize inanimate things simply because it makes it easier for us to interact with the toaster, the car or the computer if we treat them as if they were alive. Maybe, I’ll ask him next week. (Blatant name-drop).

Anyway, these natural ways of interpreting the world suggests that such ways of thinking never really go away but rather, are suppressed. Arguably, such a bias in our reasoning makes creationism that more easy to accept rather than natural selection which is so counter-intuitive to most people.

Provocatively, my colleague Paul Blooms wonders, “It might turn out that if you put Richard Dawkins or Einstein or whomever [to the test], no matter how expert or educated they are, they might still make these mistakes.”

Now that’s a study I would like to see.

Ok… clearly a more academic post coz I have some meetings coming up where I have to be clever but I will get back to describing the underbelly of mankind shortly.


Filed under Research

Milk of Human Kindness

cowlickinghand-1In a previous post, I pointed out how peculiar it was that most of us prefer to consume bovine milk rather than human milk. Also we find breast-feeding beyond infancy perverse and disgusting. Why is this?  I find this question fascinating for many reasons. Anyway, the Swiss restaurant owner who has opened an establishment that serves food cooked with human milk is finding it hard to meet demand. But there might be a simple solution.

Drs Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University have shown that by giving a cow a name and treating her as an individual, farmers can increase their annual milk yield by almost 500 pints. Basically treating animals in a much kinder, humane way is good for yields. Anthropomorphism is not such a bad thing after all.

Oh and as for human milk…. oh come on.. would you?


Filed under In the News, Newspaper, Weird Story of the Week

Shape-Shifting Goat Arrested for Car Theft

goatA goat is currently being held in Kwara State police cells in Nigeria,  accused of car theft. According to the BBC report, a vigilante group captured the goat who they claim is actually a lycanthrope or ‘shape-shifter.’ Lycanthropy has its origins in myth but does have a rare clinical manifestation in some psychotic patients who believe they can transform into animals.

After hearing about General Butt Naked in the last post, one might be tempted to think that supernatural beliefs are the norm on the African continent but before jumping to stereotypes, I would urge caution. Apparently, the gang captured the goat and then immediately went to the media. One is reminded of a certain famous anthropologist who was fed many a yarn by the “natives” coz they thought it was a bit of fun. However, whatever the motive, there is a more worrying concern that the police have lost control over the mob-rule that now terrorizes the society.


Filed under Newspaper, supernatural

Robot Sex

After my recent post about whether we should marry robots, I guess we still have a long way to go.

I wonder how you would feel if your lover’s arms fell off mid way.

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Filed under Essentialism