Sunday, November 17, 2013

Anthropomorphism: It's not a 4-letter word

Anthropomorphism.   Sixteen letters of sheer terror to some in the animal field.  I think it’s high time we take a good look at what anthropomorphism really means to those of us in the training field. 

Let’s first define our wordy friend:


noun: anthropomorphism
  1. the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.
This may or may not be anthropomorphism. 

We are really apt to anthropomorphize as a kid on objects like toys or stuffed animals.  Well, when I was a kid, I brought to life a colorful character by the name of Pluggy.  Pluggy was a plug (like as in the thing you plug into an electric outlet). Not only did I spend a large amount of time talking to walls (....because that’s usually were Pluggy hung out), but I had many dreams about her.*  

My friend!

So sometimes anthropomorphism is just our imagination taking flight, and it has some good uses.  Kids develop social skills this way (uh, not sure that applied to my electrical friend) and empathy.  It serves its purpose.  And once you enter teenagerdom and adulthood, it’s weird to continue attributing emotional responses to inanimate objects.

Now, let’s get into the meat of this topic.  It’s time we stopped dancing around this word (frankly, it’s too long to dance around for a long time.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it).

Nothing I’m about to write about is eligible for a peer-reviewed article.  So if you’ve got your scientific-paper glasses on, take them off.   If you feel like you’re ready to go to battle to me over this simple blog on an interesting topic, go eat some candy or something to better your mood.   This is supposed to be fun!

One of the first things an animal trainer learns is to “never” anthropomorphize in their training session.   Why is this?  For those of you who don’t know, operant conditioning requires that each behavior you teach has a list of criteria that must be met in order to be considered correct.  For example, if I ask a sea lion to wave her pectoral flipper, she must respond right away to the signal and wave pretty vigorously until I let her know she did a good job.  So the criteria for the behavior are: quick response to signal, moves flipper vigorously, moves flipper in a controlled manner, and keeps waving until I tell her she’s correct.

If she messes up one of those criteria, then we apply a 3 second neutral response and move on to something she is likely to succeed at.

Girl, gimme yo' flipper

So where does “anthropomorphism” come in?  

Let’s say Sally the sea lion isn’t waving right.  I ask her to wave, and she slowly lifts her flipper and gives a little twitch, then sets her flipper back down on the ground.   If you stick to your training fundamentals, this is what you’d do:

Trainer: Hmm, Sally isn’t waving properly.  Does she look like she injured her flipper somehow?  No, she looks healthy.  Okay, I’m going to move on to another behavior and I’ll come back to this later.
Sally: Hmm, I wasn’t reinforced for that flipper wave.  Yeah, I know I have to do that differently.

If you “anthropomorphize”, this is what happens:

Trainer: Oh, Sally isn’t waving properly.  Her eyes are half-closed, she’s tired.  Come to think of it, that thunderstorm last night was really loud.  I bet she was up all night.  She probably just doesn’t feel like waving.   But she’s at least making an effort.  I don’t want her to think I’m mad at her or something for not waving as well as she usually does.  Okay, I’m going to reinforce that wave, because she is really trying.
Sally: Wow, this is confusing and frustrating.  I guess there’s new criteria for the wave.

Make sense?  If you assume you know WHY an animal is not reaching criteria and/or is refusing to do a behavior or a session, and you act on that by reinforcing poor criteria, you will eventually wind up with behavioral drift.  Why? Because that’s what you’ve taught the animal, regardless of their emotional state.  It’d be different if you could have a conversation with them:

Trainer: Hey Sally, can you do a wave for me, please?
Sally: No, I’m just really not into it right now.
Trainer: Why not?
Sally:  I slept on my left side kind of weird and my shoulder joint is stiff.
Trainer: Okay, just give me a tiny little wave and we’ll call it a day.  But once your shoulder is feeling better, we’ll go back to the normal wave okay?
Sally: Sure!

But here’s my question: Is assuming the emotional state of an animal truly anthropomorphism?

Let’s dissect the definition.  It says “...attributing human characteristics or an animal...”. 

What are human characteristics or behavior?  What does that mean exactly?

Here’s the thing, it’s not up for debate as to whether or not animals have emotional responses.  Emotions are a combination of factors involving: neurotransmitters, brain matter, and external stimuli.  Humans are not in any way unique in this capacity.  If you want to read more about emotions and how they work in the brain (in both humans and in a handful of animals in peer-reviewed studies), go to the link below.

Animals with brains (for sake of argument: brains = at least having an amygdala, pons, and hypothalamus) have emotional responses.  Emotional responses in and of themselves are innate, they are physical, they require cells and the exchange of electrical information thanks to some neat ions you can find in such things as Gatorade.  There is nothing wishy-washy or hippy-dippy about admitting to ourselves that animals have emotions** .  It’s biological fact.

Might not be what plants crave, but your cells sure do!  Why? Cuz it's got electrolytes.

Sometimes I hear people talk about “human emotion”.  Well, I’ve yet to come across research that specifies there is a difference between “human” emotion, and the emotions of every other species of brained-animals on earth.  Setting aside a spiritual belief that says otherwise, there is no scientific backing to separate a human being’s brain from that of another animal in terms of the presence of emotional response.  It’s the law of parsimony: the simplest explanation is usually the one closest to the truth.  So which of the following do you think is the most parsimonious?

  1. Humans have instinctive and learned emotional responses, unlike the other tens of millions of other species of extant animals
  2. All animals with an amygdala and hypothalamus and neurotransmitters  can produce emotional responses 
Ain't nobody on this ball got emotion? Puh-leez.

Emotional responses mean survival.  Long gone are the days of believing all non-human animals moved around their world like robots, mindless machines, and/or me after eating 12 donuts in a row.   Brained animals interact with their environment in a meaningful manner that requires a lot of learning and knowledge retention, in addition to instinctive response.  A beautiful combination of learning and instinctive behavior?  Emotional responses!   The emotions are innate, but when they are experienced can be (and are) learned.

Humans tend to believe in an almost poetic sense that emotional states are evidence of “higher” thinking.  This notion of “high” or “low” in terms of cognition are thanks to our pal Aristotle.  But this idea that you can arrange complexity of animals on a linear scale is outdated and unsupported by evidence.   So by admitting that non-human animals have emotions, you’re not unscientific.  On the contrary, you’re more in line with the current research.

Aristotle was unavailable for comment.

So, when we say anthropomorphism is attributing human emotions, I take issue with that.  Perhaps what we mean to say is, attributing human emotional responses (and behaviors).  We smile when we are happy (well, at least in the Western world).  Despite us being a primate, our primate pals smile for the complete opposite response; it is a precursor to some serious aggression.  

This chimp decidedly did NOT just save a bunch of money on car insurance.  

You need to know your animal and the set of behaviors we currently understand that they emit.  That is where anthropomorphism comes into dangerous play:

Trainer: OMG! Look at that seal smile at me!! He must be so happy, because when I’m happy, I smile!
Seal: Whaaaaaat? Dude, this is my pissed off face.
Trainer: Really? I could’ve sworn smiling means happy.  That’s what it means to humans.
Seal: Wow, I thought you guys were just angry all the time because you’re always baring your teeth.

Attributing human emotional responses is anthropomorphism: saying animals have emotions is not. 

We rely on the fact that animals have emotions in the training field all the time.  In fact, training would not work without them.  Tremendous amounts of research have been done on how dopamine plays a major role in positive reinforcement training and knowledge retention.  Basically, you feel good when you get rewarded with whatever you find reinforcing: praise, money, large slabs of cheese, etc.  

The very fact that we as trainers learn our animals individually and try to use things that seem reinforcing beyond just food is evidence that, while we are afraid to say our animals like something, we base our entire training program on that very belief.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that I (or any trainer) can scientifically or even always correctly guess the emotional state of an animal.  We can barely do this in ourselves (c’mon, who lied to grandma about that sweater they got for the holidays?).  But the more you know your animal, the more you learn about their mannerisms, the more you learn what reinforcers elicit a quicker learning response.  What’s wrong with then saying, “My dog Fido likes the ball, because he plays with it every day.”

Some trainer “purists” would counter, “Fido appears to like the ball simply because it has a high reinforcing value.”

Okay, what’s the difference here?  I can describe things I like and dislike by using the same terminology.

Cat appears to find donuts reinforcing because they have a high reinforcing (and caloric) value due to the high proportion of sugars and fats which are innately reinforced through positive feedback in the brain.

Cat appears to enjoy Christmas time, because this time period is associated with a long history of chocolate balls.

The reinforcement history is strong in you, Christmas Ball.

Cat exhibits behavior consistent with aversion when she goes to the dentist, because there is a long and complicated punishment history involving pain, discomfort, and oh, this one time where her hygienist didn’t speak a word of English.

My brain is conditioned the same way a dolphin, or a dog, or a parrot, or even a lawyer’s brain is.  My likes and dislikes are shaped with an intricate process of internal and external stimuli and subsequent consequences.  I’m just allowed to talk about what I and other humans like and dislike, but I have to use 67 times more words to explain the same concept in another animal species. 

So look, I get why this “anthropomorphism” thing got out of control in animal training.  Because there are times when it is taken to the other extreme: when people are 100% convinced they know the emotional state of the animals under their care and it results in a major breakdown in their training program, which can frustrate the animal and even be dangerous at a point.

Don’t anthropomorphize by thinking all human behavior is the universal litmus test to understanding emotional states in other animals.

Don’t assume you know your animal’s emotional state when it could cause you to slack on criteria and therefore confuse the heck out of your critter.

Read your animal.  Look at the facts: what reinforcer gets the job done faster?  Be consistent, fair, predictable in your training....but be compassionate.  Your animals feel and think, but it’s a mystery beyond that.   Don’t feel bad saying, “I think that dolphin is happy, based on my 15 years of experience working with that dolphin.”  Are you submitting that sentence for publication in a scientific journal? No.  Are you letting your belief that the dolphin is happy interfere with your training program? No.  So what’s the big deal?

Have fun with getting to know your animals!

Maybe some of us are worried about the naysayers to our profession as zookeepers and animal trainers.  If we say our animals have emotions, doesn’t that give the greenlight to detractors to say, “your animals look bored/sad”?  No.  They do not have the same relationships with the animals.  They are looking at the animals through a political lens, and most of them do not even have a background in ethology.  THEY truly anthropomorphize because they are usually unaware of that animal species‘ natural ethological repertoire:

Detractor: That dolphin is so sad!!!! He is just sitting at the surface motionless.
Dolphin: Hey jerk, I’m trying to sleep.

As animal caretakers, we shouldn’t be embarrassed anymore about expressing our opinions to one another about our animals as emotional individuals.  We can keep it professional and cutting edge, and be on the forefront of current scientific understanding of how other animals perceive the world.    We can use the helpful, necessary training terminology and provide excellent care and a stellar training program to our animals.   You can live in the middle of this amazing spectrum: acknowledge what is there, but that you can’t understand it.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

* Once time I had a dream that Pluggy was decked out in Notre Dame gear.

** Maybe not jelly fish, because they don’t have brains (THANK GOD). 


  1. This is very interesting! And the explanation is so clear! Keep up the good work ^^

  2. A nice fresh perspective on the subject. Thank You.