According to Dr. Adam Waytz, “People are far better equipped with the tools to understand other people’s minds than chimpanzees, bonobos, or any other animal on the planet. They have an amazing capacity to get into other people’s minds, but they don’t always use that capacity automatically. This is because people often start from a perspective of egocentrism where, in attempts to get into other people’s minds, they think about what their own minds like or dislike and what would be on their own minds if they were in the other person’s situation.”
With Adam Waytz, PhD
|Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer
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As an example of when this strategy would work correctly, Dr. Waytz asks you to consider the perspective of his 9-year-old son touching a hot cup of coffee for the first time. As he explains, you can probably easily feel his son’s pain.
However, egocentrism can also lead people to make errors, such as would happen if you tried to imagine how Dr. Waytz’s son would feel tightly wrapped in a blanket. He says, “If I think about that from an egocentric perspective, I would say, ‘That sounds uncomfortable. I wouldn’t like that at all.’ But my son loves it, and it helps him go to sleep at night. That is the paradox where egocentrism can lead us astray.”
Meet Dr. Waytz
Dr. Waytz first became interested in social psychology when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University (NY). He says, “It amazed me that an entire field exists where people can ask questions about why others do the things they do and a million other questions that I felt were worth studying.” These opportunities engaged him throughout college and led him to graduate school.
Now a social neuropsychologist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University (IL), much of Dr. Waytz’s research centers on understanding the way that people perceive and interact with other people and nonhuman entities, as well as the effects of those perceptions and interactions. A few specific examples of recent topics that he has studied include whether it is really “lonely at the top” (Waytz, Chou, Magee, & Galinsky, 2015) and “How to Make Robots Seem Less Creepy” (Waytz & Norton, 2014).
Dr. Waytz has been awarded numerous honors, and he and his cocontributors have received more than one million dollars in grant funding since 2010. He attributes part of his success to his mentors, Drs. John Cacioppo and Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago, who he still works with to this day. He exclaims, “I can’t say enough about their value to me. I think collaboration is the most important skill of a good researcher, but to collaborate with people who are senior to you in their experience and education can have a great effect on your research life. They taught me to be curious, that having interesting ideas matter, and the importance of writing all the time.”
Anthropomorphism occurs when people attribute distinctively human mental characteristics to nonhuman entities such as supernatural entities, pets, or technology. “By attributing distinctively human characteristics,” Dr. Waytz explains, “this really means attributing mental states, the capacity for a higher order of agency, thoughts, intentions, desires, and experiences such as pain and pleasure.”
Dr. Waytz’s first project as a graduate student with coadvisors Drs. Cacioppo and Epley was essentially to determine what causes people to anthropomorphize. Together, they identified three primary factors described below.
|Elicited agent knowledge. What this means is that, when a nonhuman brings the concept of “human” to mind, people are more likely to anthropomorphize. For example, people are more likely to anthropomorphize when they see something like a dog or a robot with a humanlike face, which recalls the image of a human.
|Effectance. This is the motivation to explain and understand the behavior of other agents. An example Dr. Waytz provides is this: “When your car doesn’t start, you might treat it more like a human in an attempt to understand it.”
|Sociality. This is the desire for social contact and affiliation. In other words, when people don’t feel connected with other humans, this may lead them to seek out connections with nonhumans.
“The people most likely to anthropomorphize,” Dr. Waytz says, “are those who are prone to magical thinking. That is kind of the main personality characteristic associated with anthropomorphism. They are people prone to sort of believe in fate and luck, and have magical ideas of how the world works such as believing in horoscopes or reincarnation. I would say that anthropomorphism of supernatural beings and gods has probably decreased since the time of ancient civilizations, which anthropomorphized all sorts of natural entities such as the moon, stars, and rivers to have the qualities of humanlike gods. Anthropomorphism of technology might increase again as technology becomes more humanlike. However, it might also decease if people become more capable of using the technology and have less of a need of sense making.”
It may be possible to apply the concept of anthropomorphism in a number of ways. For example, pairing anthropomorphic words with other words may improve word retention, and anthropomorphism may also be used in marketing to influence customer buying habits. So what are the pros and cons associated with anthropomorphism?
Dr. Waytz says, “I would say the negative effect of anthropomorphism is that it can set up unrealistic expectations for how something should work. If we treat our computers, gadgets, and cars like human beings, we are going to be disappointed because they aren’t human beings.”
On the other hand, Dr. Waytz adds, “When people anthropomorphize nature, they become more willing to care for the environment, and the same is true of animal rights. When people anthropomorphize various animals, they become more willing to protect them. Perhaps we could get people to care more about global warming if we show the earth as a more humanlike victim. We can also use anthropomorphism to ease people’s interactions with technology, again so long as it doesn’t get them to the point where they develop unrealistic expectations.” In addition, Dr. Waytz says that, although he has not personally explored this, some research has suggested that nonhuman companions such as pets or even robotic seals can provide benefits to well-being.
Functioning in sort of the opposite direction from anthropomorphism, dehumanization is the deprivation of human qualities in people, which can result in a number of behaviors such as immoral action toward others (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 1996), increased aggression (Bandura, Underwood, & Fromson, 1975), discrimination toward racial outgroups (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008), and justification for past wrongdoing (Castano & Giner-Sorolla, 2006).
As Dr. Waytz explains, “The typical result of being deemed to have a mind is that you are all of a sudden worthy of care, concern, and dignity. You are capable of experiencing pain, pleasure, and all of these various experiences and desires. However, when people fail to consider that you are a thinking, feeling, and sentient being, a major consequence is that they are more likely to treat you poorly. They might neglect your needs, and in recent research, we have also shown that failing to consider that you have a mind actually makes perceivers more willing to do impolite things in front of you because they do not see you as capable or worthy of judging them.”
Less heard about than dehumanization are the consequences of superhumanization, which many people tend to believe is a proactive method to avoid or counteract the subhumanization of people. However, this may not be true according to Dr. Waytz, who basically thinks of superhumanization as a type of dehumanization.
He says, “Superhumanization is a concept we studied in the context of how White people perceive Black people. This was based on a lot of work outside of psychology that noted how Black people are depicted as having sort of superhuman strengths, abilities, or supernatural qualities in popular media such as the news, films, or comic books.” Some examples he provides include the portrayal of Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost or Morgan Freeman in various movies playing God. “The question is this: Is this phenomenon real, and does it exist in everyday life?”
What they found was that White people did indeed both implicitly and explicitly associate more Black people than White people with supernatural concepts. Dr. Waytz’s research has also shown that these superhumanization characterizations are related to the tendency to think that Black people don’t experience as much pain as White people. He explains, “We saw a lot of superhumanizing rhetoric surrounding cases of police killings such as Michael Brown. Police officers described Michael Brown in superhuman terms, which then played into sort of licensing aggression toward the victim as well.” For example, officers made statements about Michael Brown such as, “it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting him” and “it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked” (Waytz, Hoffman, & Trawalter, 2014).
Grouping superhumanization and subhumanization together, he says, “You might think of dehumanization as sort of the canonical treatment of someone as vermin or a roach as can be seen in large-scale conflicts such as the Rwandan Genocide, the Holocaust, or during American slavery. However, those events really only capture the subhumanizing component of dehumanization, which occurs when certain people are perceived outside of the category of being human beings.”
Further research is clearly needed to study how people understand other people’s minds, as well as how they interact with other people and nonhuman entities. For just a few of Dr. Waytz’s future plans, he hopes to “dig deeper into the nature of morality, the nature of ethical behavior, and where that comes from to hopefully provide an answer to what effect technology really has on people’s social lives. I think there is a lot of discussion on that. Is it good? Is it bad? Has it helped us? Has it hurt us? My goal is to sort of gather all of the literature up, come up with the answer, and summarize what that is.”
Anthropomorphism and dehumanization can cause people to treat outgroups more poorly and create unreal expectations for how those outgroups are “supposed” to behave. A lesson to be learned from Dr. Waytz and others’ research is this: Using perspectives beyond just egocentrism, challenge yourself to learn about and treat other people like human beings—not like anything more or anything less.
SIDEBAR: The Secret Life of Dr. Waytz
Dr. Waytz’s has two primary interests outside of his research. First, he coauthored a few books on NBA basketball through a writer’s collective called Free Darko. This project started out as a blog when he was in graduate school and later turned into a couple books, which he describes as sort of “illustrated almanacs with quasiintellectual essays.”
Second, he has been writing music lyrics with a group in Minneapolis since he was 15 years old. “We put out a number of albums under two names, Oddjobs and Kill the Vultures, and toured all over the country and Europe. I am still working on recording things that will be released at some point.”
Looking back, Dr. Waytz says that his music career taught him that the most effective way to get anything done is from collaboration. “People are nothing without their collaborators, and I would be nothing without my collaborators as well.”
Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., & Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 364–374. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.524
Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality, 9, 253–269. doi:10.1016/0092-6566(75)90001-X
Castano, E., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2006). Not quite human: Infrahumanization in response to collective responsibility for intergroup killing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 804–818. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2064
Epley, N., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2007). On seeing human: A three-factor theory of anthropomorphism. Psychological Review, 114, 864–86. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.114.4.864
Goff, P. A., Eberhardt, J. L., Williams, M. J., & Jackson, M. C. (2008). Not yet human: Implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 292–306. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.112
Waytz, A., & Norton, M. (2014, June 1). How to make robots seem less creepy. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-make-robots-seem-lesscreepy-1401473812#
Waytz, A., Cacioppo, J., & Epley, N. (2014). Who sees human? The stability and importance of individual differences in anthropomorphism. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 219–232. doi:10.1177/1745691610369336
Waytz, A., Chou, E., Magee, J., & Galinsky, A. (2015, July 24). Not lonely at the top. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/opinion/not-lonely-at-the-top.html?_r=0
Waytz, A., Hoffman, K. M., & Trawalter, S. (2014, November 26). The racial bias embedded in Darren Wilson’s testimony. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/11/26/the-racial-bias-embedded-indarren-wilsons-testimony/
Adam Waytz, PhD, is a psychologist and an associate professor of management and organizations in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University (IL). He uses methods from social psychology and neuroscience to research topics such as altruism, dehumanization, anthropomorphism, whistleblowing, trust, and moral responsibility. He has numerous research articles in leading journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Psychological Science, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and Psychological Review and has written popular articles for outlets including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Scientific American, and Slate. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University (NY), a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Chicago (IL), and received a National Research Service Award from the National Institute of Health to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University (MA). He is the first person to receive twice the Theoretical Innovation Prize from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. In 2014, Poets and Quants named him one of the Best 40 Business School Professors Under the Age of 40, and in 2015, he won the early career award from the International Social Cognition Network as well as the SAGE Foundation Young Scholar Award.
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