Theorist(s): Fritz Heider 🇦🇹 and Marianne Simmel 🇺🇸
Publication: The American journal of psychology
In psychology, the first empirical study of anthropomorphism was conducted in 1944 by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. In the first part of this experiment, the researchers showed a 2-and-a-half minute long animation of several shapes moving around on the screen in varying directions at various speeds. When subjects were asked to describe what they saw, they gave detailed accounts of the intentions and personalities of the shapes. For instance, the large triangle was characterized as a bully, chasing the other two shapes until they could trick the large triangle and escape. The researchers concluded that when people see objects making motions for which there is no obvious cause, they view these objects as intentional agents.
Modern psychologists generally characterize anthropomorphism as a cognitive bias. That is, anthropomorphism is a cognitive process by which people use their schemas about other humans as a basis for inferring the properties of non-human entities in order to make efficient judgments about the environment, even if those inferences are not always accurate. Schemas about humans are used as the basis because this knowledge is acquired early in life, is more detailed than knowledge about non-human entities, and is more readily accessible in memory. Anthropomorphism can also function as a strategy to cope with loneliness when other human connections are not available.
Heider, F. and Simmel, M., 1944. An experimental study of apparent behavior. The American journal of psychology, 57(2), pp.243-259. DOI: 10.2307/1416950