Has Research Really Found That People Who Talk To Pets Are Smarter Than Those Who Don’t?


woman talking to pet

People love assigning human traits to nonhuman things. We call our car that won’t start a rickety old man, we describe storm clouds as “angry”, and we give names and genders to our cars, boats, and other objects. So its no surprise that people who talk to pets might do some of these things.

This is called anthropomorphizing, which is when you attribute human form or personality to anything that is not human [1].

What is our favorite thing to anthropomorphize? Our pets. Alan Beck, director of the Purdue University Center for the Human-Animal Bond, once said that “97 percent of pet owners talk to their pets, and the other three percent are liars” [2].

Having a full-blown conversation with your pet, however, might draw some strange looks. That being said, one study has shown that people who talk to pets are actually more intelligent. Is this true?

Study: People Who Talk to Pets are Smarter

The study in question was conducted by Nicholas Epley, a behavioural science Professor at the University of Chicago. He said that historically, people have treated anthropomorphizing as a sign of childishness or stupidity, but no other species engages in this behaviour.

“It’s actually a natural byproduct of the tendency that makes humans uniquely smart on this planet,” he explained [3].

He added that we anthropomorphize objects all the time, often without even realizing it. We talk to our cars (why won’t you turn on?) and our plants (aren’t you looking lovely today?), along with many other objects in our lives. According to Epley, this is just the byproduct of having an active, intelligent, social cognition.

So does this mean that people who talk to pets are smarter than others? Unfortunately for all the pet-talkers out there, it doesn’t. It is simply a sign that you have a human brain that is programmed to look for faces. Are you smarter than other animals? Yes. Other people? Not necessarily.

Why do we Anthropomorphize Things?

There are three reasons why we might anthropomorphize something, particualtly when talking to pets:

1. It looks like it has a face.

The human brain is really good at seeing faces. We have this trait so we can distinguish between a friend and a potentially dangerous predator. Our brains are capable of recognizing and reading faces, and we use our faces to communicate emotions, thoughts, and intentions.

Humans are very social animals, and are always trying to decipher what someone is thinking or what they’re going to do. For this reason, when we see an animal, or an object that looks like it has eyes, we have a tendency to give it a human mind.

2. We want to be friends with it.

We more often anthropomorphize things that we like over things that we don’t. The more you like another person, the more you want to engage with their mind. This goes for animals and inanimate objects as well.

In addition, the lonelier we are, the more likely we are to do this. Think Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway [4].

3. We can’t explain its unpredictable behaviour.

Humans mistake unpredictability with humanness. Why? Because we are unpredictable ourselves. If we can’t understand why an animal or an object is acting a certain way (ie- the car won’t start) we are more likely to treat it as if it were human than if it was acting normal.

You can explain weather patterns, car troubles, or your pet’s behaviour with physics, meteorology, engineering, and neuroscience, but most of us don’t really want to try and understand those complex topics. 

“The presence of a mind provides an intuitive explanation for all three without any advanced degrees,” explained Epley [3].

Keep Reading: Dogs Must be Walked Twice a Day, According to a New German Law

Sorry… People Who Talk to Pets are Just… People

Do a quick Google search, and you will find a whole collection of articles stating that people who talk to pets are smarter. Many of them even cite various scientific studies. Unfortunately, all of them are false.

One of these often-cited studies is by psychologists Gary Sherman and Jonathan Haidt. One online article made the following statement:

“A study by Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt conducted at Harvard University showed that people who preferred the company of and had conversations with their pets on a regular basis proved to be more intelligent than those who didn’t.” [2]

When asked to verify this statement, Haidt replied that there was zero truth to that statement. He didn’t even know how that rumor started.

It is true, however, that some people are more prone to anthropomorphic thinking than others. A 2016 study from Australia found that people who anthropomorphize objects more often tend to exhibit certain personality traits. Those traits are:

  • More open to new experiences.
  • More anxious.
  • Have faith in intuition (but are not more religious).
  • Have a personal connection to animals.

The evidence for these qualities was not very strong, however, and the authors admitted that more research was needed. At no point in the study did they attribute intelligence to anthropomorphizing [5].

People Who Talk to Pets: Keep Doing It

You may be disappointed to learn that talking to your pets is not a sign of intelligence. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should stop doing it. Despite what some onlookers might think, it doesn’t mean that you’re crazy- it means you’re human.

Giving human traits to nonhuman things is a way to add a little color into our world. What’s more fun to think about? That your car won’t start because it has a loose connection somewhere, or because it’s a tired old man who doesn’t want to go for a drive today?

So keep on having conversations with your pet- after all, they’re great listeners.

Keep Reading: 10 Dog Breeds That Live a Long Time

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