Are you looking at me?

Why companies like to turn products into people

Alice G. Walton | Aug 27, 2015

It’s fair to say that commuters can be a surly bunch, particularly in the rain. So it will be interesting to see how they respond if, sometime in the near future, a cab that resembles a happy Herbie (of the Disney movie The Love Bug) pulls up alongside them. Both Uber and Google are reportedly testing driverless cars, and Google turned some loose on the roads of Mountain View, California, and Austin, Texas, this summer. The company designed the front end of its prototype to look like an innocent, wide-eyed human face.

Anthropomorphism—giving human characteristics to animals, objects, constellations, and other nonhuman things—is a natural and ancient human inclination. Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume wrote about a “universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves”—a tendency, he argued, that stems from an intellectual urge to understand a frightening and erratic existence. All over the world, and throughout time, people have fashioned gods after people—and some have envisioned god-favored heroes in the constellations. Sailors named storms and hurricanes, a tradition continued by meteorological organizations. We see faces in clouds and trees, and attribute to our pets motivations that we can’t prove.

In the past few decades, thanks to advances in technology, we have created things that talk, sing, dance on screen, smile, frown, and exhibit nuanced human expressions. We think of products and brands as other people with fully formed personalities—as companions, friends, and relationship partners. When companies develop anthropomorphized characters, consumers pay attention. A video of geeky, dancing hamsters shilling for Kia has more than 8 million views on YouTube.

But despite our apparent need to anthropomorphize objects, the issue was rarely studied from a business perspective until recently. Now researchers are beginning to understand the psychology of anthropomorphism, which can be a useful tool—not only for selling cars and other products, but in understanding how we interact with animals, computers, and entire ecosystems. Anthropomorphism could be used to help overcome fears about self-driving cars, or to persuade a sometimes-skeptical public to confront climate change. A sense of humanity, we are learning, is a powerful motivator.

What makes us see humans everywhere?

Hume implied that our anthropomorphism is uniform. Nicholas Epley, John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth, disagrees. He says that when it comes to assigning human qualities to things, there’s huge variability. We don’t even anthropomorphize the same object in all situations. Sometimes, he points out, we start a car and press the pedal. Other times, we may pet its dashboard and plead for it to start.

“It changes over the course of a lifetime, in different situations, and across different cultures,” says Epley. Though it contradicts our higher logic, we still get sucked in: we know a talking peanut can’t exist, yet he’s an endearing and remarkably adept salesperson. We know that a computer that crashes right before a big presentation can’t be out to get us, but we curse at it anyway. It seems to be in our nature to humanize things despite our capacity to reason—or perhaps in part because of it.

The science behind the talking gecko ads

To understand what makes humans see themselves in other entities, Epley developed a three-pronged model. First, and above all, we anthropomorphize for social reasons, he claims. We have a fundamental desire to connect with people around us, and we may anthropomorphize things that aren’t human to connect with them, too. In one striking example, chronicled by documentary filmmaker Agnieszka Piotrowska, an extremely isolated British woman with deep social anxieties fell in love with her sound system, which she called “Jake.” A Hollywood version of the scenario played out in the movie Her, in which a lonely man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his high-tech operating system, which calls itself Samantha, and bears the sultry voice of Scarlett Johansson.

In one study, Epley, along with his former student Adam Waytz, now at Northwestern, Scott Akalis of Harvard, and the University of Chicago’s John T. Cacioppo, observed that lonely people were more likely than others to anthropomorphize objects. Participants who were measured by a questionnaire as lonelier were more likely to assign human traits to an item such as “Clocky,” an alarm clock on wheels that ‘‘runs away,’’ forcing a sleepy person to get up to turn it off. In follow-up experiments, people who were induced by the researchers to feel lonely, through movies and other cues, were more likely to assign human characteristics of sympathy and considerateness to animals, and to believe in supernatural entities such as ghosts, angels, or a god. “Social disconnection does not turn atheists into fundamentalists, of course, but it may nudge religious belief in the same direction for believers and nonbelievers alike,” the researchers write.

The second element of anthropomorphism Epley identifies is “effectance motivation,” our natural inclination to make sense of, and exert control over, the world. “We’re always trying to make inferences, and to gauge other people’s responses, and then change our own accordingly,” he says. Treating something as if it has a mind helps us make such inferences. When you get into a car and it starts, you go about your day—no inferences necessary: “But when you get in and it doesn’t start, then you give it a mind. You get angry at it.”

In one study, Waytz, Carey K. Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon, Epley, the University of Chicago’s George Monteleone and Jia-Hong Gao, and Cacioppo looked at how people made inferences about products that were either predictable or unpredictable. People were more likely to anthropomorphize them if they behaved unpredictably, perhaps because their erratic behavior seemed almost human.

The researchers also took functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) of the brains of the study participants, to see what areas were active in the moment participants were anthropomorphizing an object. The parts of the brain that became active in considering objects were the same ones that activate when we’re making inferences about other people’s mental states. “These findings suggest that perceiving an agent as having a mind of its own may not be mere metaphor,” says Epley. Our brains respond as if we really are interacting with another “mind.”

The third element in Epley’s theory of anthropomorphism is cognitive and automatic. The only lens we have for viewing the world is human, he says, so we apply that complex knowledge base to everything around us. Giving certain human traits—such as eyes or a voice—to inanimate objects can trigger our idea of what’s human, making it more likely that we’ll anthropomorphize the object. Epley’s latest study, with Waytz and the University of Connecticut’s Joy Heafner, found that it takes only subtle touches of humanness to persuade us to treat a driverless car as having a mind. A voice, a name, and a gender were enough to get riders to see “her” as more than a mindless machine.

How we react to a car’s ‘come hither’ look

Once we see a face in something, what do we think? Do we like it? Feel frightened? It turns out that just as different human faces evoke different responses, faces given to objects do the same.

Ann L. McGill, Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing, and Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth, once got stuck in traffic, with an aggressive-looking pickup in her rearview mirror. “I found myself reacting even more strongly,” she says. “It wasn’t just that it was honking and right on my tail, but it looked really angry—and being a pickup truck, it loomed large in my rearview mirror.”

Soon after, McGill began studying car “faces.” With Pankaj Aggarwal of the University of Toronto, who received his PhD at Chicago Booth, she conducted a simple experiment using cars to determine whether the products fulfilled our sense of specific human schema, or our idea of what it is to be one kind of human or another.

As Google and generations of moviegoers know well, features of cars can be used to look like faces. Herbie, a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, had a long career in film. Today millions of children are more familiar with Pixar’s animated Cars films, featuring characters such as racecar Lightning McQueen and the tow truck Mater.

In their car study, McGill and Aggarwal test whether each car seems like a spokesperson. They had college students look at automobile print ads in which the cars appeared to be either smiling or frowning. In some cases, the cars addressed the viewer directly, saying, for instance, “Hi! I am Lexus. You may have seen me around in your city. Lately, I have gotten a face-lift. . . . ” In other cases, the ad was constructed in the third person (“You will now see a picture of a Lexus. You may have seen this car around in the city.”). If a car was smiling and the ad was written as if the car were a spokesperson, participants liked the car better than if the car were frowning. The smiling car better fit respondents’ stored framework of knowledge about a spokesperson, who tends to smile. On the other hand, when the ad was written in the third person, participants were no more likely to see the car as human if it were smiling than if it were frowning. “We propose that, when marketers encourage consumers to anthropomorphize a product, consumers bring to mind their schema for the type of person suggested, and that the product is evaluated in part by how well its features fit that schema,” McGill and Aggarwal write.

A similar phenomenon occurred when the researchers replaced cars with soda bottles having humanlike bodies. When the team presented an ad describing a group of bottles as a “family line,” participants evaluated the bottles more positively when the bottles were differently sized—resembling two parents and two kids—than when they were all the same size. Finally, when two bottles were presented as “twins,” participants saw them as more human, and liked them better, if the bottles were the same size, rather than different sizes (though they liked them a little less when the pair was presented as evil twins rather than good twins).

Coca-Cola has taken advantage of the human tendency to like products better when they seem more like people. Its carbonated soft-drink sales in the United States rose last year for the first time since 2000, after the company began putting names on its bottles, using the 250 most popular first names for teens and Millennials. “To see your name on a big brand, it makes it personal,” customer Ricardo El Torro told the Wall Street Journal.

Faces struck the researchers as particularly important. They’re critical from an evolutionary perspective, after all, says McGill. If one of our ancestors were to have misread the expression on a face, or even missed seeing an approaching face, he might have become the dinner of a predator, or the victim of an intruder. Our sensitivity to faces may also be an artifact of our socialness; our lives largely revolve around complex interactions with family, coworkers, acquaintances, and friends.

People respond better to certain “expressions” in the faces of cars over others. McGill, with Jan R. Landwehr and Andreas Herrmann of the University of St. Gallen, asked study participants to look at photos of 16 car models with various combinations of headlights and grilles. The cars bore all the possible combinations of eyes (slanted or arched) and mouths (upturned or downturned), and the participants rated each car’s friendliness and aggressiveness. In line with research on human faces by Paul Ekman, an American psychologist, and other studies, the researchers found that slanted eyes and downturned mouths worked in tandem to signal aggression, while upturned mouths alone signaled friendliness.

After seeing what emotions the cars provoked, the researchers determined the optimal combination of features for likeability. The most enticing combination according to participants: an upturned grille (indicating friendliness) and slanted headlights (indicating aggression)—a look, interestingly, that does not have a human equivalent. Yet this combination elicited for the viewer both pleasure and arousal, a psychology term for feeling excited or charged up. “The main emotion is pleasure, which is amplified by the higher level of arousal,” says McGill.

The researchers looked at car sales in Germany over a one-year period, and found that cars with this combination of features outsold other cars. And when the researchers examined data from a German car magazine, they found that consumers also rated cars with this combination of features better than other cars.

The face on Google’s self-driving car, however, looks not remotely aggressive. In fact, it looks quite innocent, with simplified features. According to TechCrunch, Google designed it to put riders at ease and minimize fears about risks.

We may react certain ways to faces because we create personalities and inner lives for them, the same way we do for brands. Previous research by the University of Waterloo’s Gráinne M. Fitzsimons, and Duke’s Tanya L. Chartrand and Gavan J. Fitzsimons, found that people were more creative, or behaved more innocently, after being exposed to the Apple or Disney Channel brands, respectively. Similarly, McGill and her colleagues wondered whether we also might take on the “personalities” of other, more everyday brands. In one experiment, they asked participants to imagine what kinds of people products like Kellogg’s cereal and Krispy Kreme doughnuts would be if they were human. Kellogg’s came across as a trim, healthy guy who makes smart choices about food and exercise. Kreme seemed pudgier and more sedentary.

The team asked the participants what kinds of choices they would make themselves in everyday situations. The people who’d been asked to visualize a human Kellogg’s said they’d be more likely to take the stairs over the elevator. Those who’d envisioned Krispy Kreme said they’d choose the elevator over the stairs, suggesting that the “personalities” of the brands we choose can rub off on us.

Our relationships with products also can mimic human power dynamics. In another part of the study, the researchers asked participants to imagine a brand as either a partner or a servant. A partner brand might help you to achieve a goal, while a servant brand might be seen as doing the work for you.

One brand the researchers used was Volvo, which is strongly associated with safety. In a survey, participants were asked whether they preferred to accept a smaller amount of money without risk or to take a big chance for a larger sum. When participants imagined Volvo as a partner—in other words, the people were doing the work alongside the brand—the participants were willing to take fewer risks. By contrast, when they envisioned Volvo as a servant, they took the riskier bet. And this likely translates into the real world: with Volvo positioned as a servant, people might drive less responsibly, since the car is taking care of them. In other words, when the servant is in charge of safety, the “master” is freed up to take risks.

Just as we might treat a much older neighbor with more respect, McGill argues, we interact with brands similarly, letting them nudge us into the right role. “If you think of a brand as a person, you act like it or act different from it in whatever way makes you get along with it the best,” she says.

So, if you think the brand is your partner, you act like it to make working together go smoothly. If you think it is your servant, you do the opposite to get out of its way.

When things talk, we listen

We see humans in objects and we respond accordingly—and, crucially, some of us respond with trust. McGill has found that some people might trust a talking gecko, or muffin, or M&M’s, more than they would trust a living, breathing, human spokesperson.

Who are these people? McGill and Northwestern’s Maferima Touré-Tillery, who received her PhD at Chicago Booth, tried to address this question with an experiment involving a fictitious brand of dental floss, which they called Max Floss. The dental-floss container had eyes and a mouth, and in the print ad, “he” addressed the viewer in the first person. In an alternate version, the ad copy was written in the third person. The dental floss was still named Max, but it didn’t have human features.

It turned out that participants who ranked low in interpersonal trust to begin with, measured by a questionnaire, responded well to a “talking” box of dental floss. They were more convinced of the product’s worth when it spoke to them directly than when a person presented the product’s benefits. People low in trust believe other people lack goodwill, so they discounted what the person said about the floss. However, the talking box didn’t trigger the same guarded response that those participants had to human messengers. People who were more trusting of other humans, by contrast, were just as likely to believe the product’s worth after reading the ad written in the third person. The researchers found similar effects in follow-up studies; for example, in one experiment, a talking lamp described the benefits of a light bulb. The results suggest the benefit of anthropomorphism wasn’t tied directly to the desire to purchase the talking product, but instead reflected how credible the talking item was in its pitch.

It may be possible to increase people’s trust of a particular object by anthropomorphizing it. In one study, Waytz, Heafner, and Epley asked participants to use a General Motors driving simulator. In some cases, the study participants in the simulator did the driving themselves. In other cases, the car drove the person silently. And in a third condition, a car given the name Iris—the reverse of iPhone’s Siri—drove the participant while speaking in a soothing female voice. (Epley’s colleague at Chicago Booth, Heather Caruso, served as Iris’s voice, for which she was apparently a natural.) Iris would say things such as, “Hello, I’m Iris. I’m your car’s automated system,” and, “A car turned into our lane. I’m going to slow down.”

The people in the third group, who were driven by Iris, rated the car as more intelligent and trustworthy than did people in the first two groups. And when the team programed an accident into the simulation, people riding in Iris blamed the car, its engineer, and its manufacturer considerably less than did those who drove themselves. Further, the riders’ heart rates and startle responses were considerably lower in the Iris group, suggesting that when the car seems to have a mind, people are more at ease with it.

Epley says these findings are a prime example of how small touches of humanness such as a voice, gender, and name can elicit our capacity to see humanity in a machine—to give it a mind. “When you give a non-human agent the properties that trigger it in other people, that’s when you anthropomorphize things,” says Epley. “We give something a voice—suddenly it has a mind! So it’s not hard to do.”
 
And perhaps not surprisingly, the same thing is true for actual humans: in Epley’s latest study, he and former student Juliana Schroeder had real recruiters or actors evaluate MBA candidates’ “elevator pitches” about why they should be hired. The real and fake recruiters both responded more positively to the applicants—finding them more competent, thoughtful, and intelligent—when they took in the pitches via voice recording rather than in writing. This last study may be something to keep in mind in our own social interactions: reaching out voice to voice, rather than via email, makes you seem a lot more human—and a lot more intelligent.

Should polar bears speak?

A government agency recently contacted McGill to inquire whether it should anthropomorphize mold and rot in its advertising campaign to get people to buy flood insurance. McGill says that because people vary in the traits (such as how trusting they are) that make them more or less receptive to anthropomorphism, it’s difficult to give across-the-board advice.

In noncorporate settings, objects with humanlike traits could help address climate change. Science shows with very little doubt that the earth is warming, yet many American lawmakers and citizens remain unconvinced. 

Some of Epley’s research has found that people who are more likely to anthropomorphize are also more likely to care about protecting the environment. In the same vein, some governments, noting that human destruction of various habitats is occurring at an unsustainable pace, have given “rights of nature” to plants and ecosystems. Ecuador was the first nation to vote these rights into effect, and Switzerland and the US state of Pennsylvania followed suit. “It is no accident, we assume, that environmental activists frequently speak of ‘Mother Earth’ when trying to encourage more environmentally responsible behavior,” Epley, Waytz, Akalis, and Cacioppo write in a 2008 study. “Anthropomorphizing an agent not only leads people to represent it as humanlike but to treat it as humanlike as well.”

Similarly, Aggarwal, with Hee-Kyung Ahn of Hanyang University in Seoul, and Hae Joo Kim of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, find in a 2014 study that coffee-shop patrons donated more to a tree-planting campaign when shown a poster of a tree with humanlike eyes and mouth and the caption “Save me!” than did patrons who saw a poster with no humanlike features and the caption “Save trees!” It may be in our best interest to continue anthropomorphizing the environment, in order to address climate change and related issues.

Anthropomorphism also has applications to animal welfare, says Epley: “Why is it that we are really concerned about the plight of the panda—but the spotted salamander we couldn’t give two farts about?” The discrepancy likely has to do with how much pandas trigger, and spotted salamanders don’t, the “self” centers of the mind.

Animals currently have few legal rights, though anticruelty laws require that animals in captivity be provided with basic necessities and treated humanely, unless it is considered “necessary” or “justifiable” to deny them food, water, or shelter. But those legal boundaries may be changing for animals that we perceive as most similar to humans. Orangutans, for example, can trigger us to see ourselves in them, as they seem to share a trait that in the past was attributed only to humans: self-awareness. In 2014, members of the Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights in Argentina filed a habeas corpus petition for Sandra, an orangutan born in captivity, arguing that she had been denied her freedom in her 20 years at the Buenos Aires Zoo. Sandra’s lawyers argued that her self-awareness made her a person in a “philosophical” sense, though not a biological one. The Argentinian court granted Sandra humanlike rights, meaning that she would have to be released from the zoo into a sanctuary. (She could not be released into the wild, because she had lost the skills necessary to survive there.)

Finally, how much we anthropomorphize affects our capacity to make moral judgments. Epley and his team measured people’s tendency to anthropomorphize before asking them ethical questions, such as, Would it ever be OK to destroy IBM’s chess-playing computer, “Deep Blue”? or to allow rare flowers to be destroyed? People who are more likely to anthropomorphize were also more likely to believe these types of acts were unacceptable.

People act in more socially desirable ways when they are being watched by an anthropomorphized computer: they reveal less about their own digressions and cooperate better with others in a game of economics. “Being watched by others matters, perhaps especially when others have a mind like one’s own,” Epley and colleagues write.

Anyone trying to harness the power of anthropomorphism should be cautious, of course. Researchers have plenty more to learn about why people react the way they do. Volvo doesn’t want to inadvertently encourage dangerous drivers. McGill has found that when people feel powerful, and are placed in front of a human-looking slot machine, they’re more likely to bet big. And when presented with an anthropomorphized version of skin cancer, some people get the wrong message. “When disease is anthropomorphized,” says McGill, “if you feel powerful, you’re not worried about that disease, because you think you are stronger than it. That’s worrisome since we commonly anthropomorphize cancer.” A CEO used to getting her way may feel confident that she’ll beat cancer if it is anthropomorphized—even if she smokes, skips checkups, and fails to take other steps to prevent getting it.

If a car, a clock, or cereal is anthropomorphized and sold as a much-needed companion, that’s one thing. Riskier situations need to be addressed differently, since some personality types may be liable to anthropomorphize a situation that should remain nonhuman, or to dehumanize a situation that should retain its humanness. “Where it gets more troublesome is in the higher-risk situations,” says McGill. Adding or subtracting humanness in certain situations might actually change our interactions not only with products, but also with our loved ones, the environment, our communities, and even our own bodies.

But when a happy-looking driverless cab pulls up alongside you sometime soon, chances are it’s OK to hop in and let it take you where you need to go. If “he” introduces itself to you by name, it will be hard not to trust it, since it will have been given a “mind.” Trusting your driverless cab is probably not a bad thing; after all, if it’s designed by Google or GM, it will likely be a safer driver than you.