The Cognitive Bases of Anthropomorphism: From Relatedness to Empathy

Abstract

Humans may react very differently with respect to mechanical devices, including robots. They can interact with them with delight or retreat in aversion or fear. According to the famous model of the uncanny valley these opposite reactions depend on the degree of familiarity that different artifacts engender in humans. The aim of my work is trying to find out the cognitive bases of familiarity, analyzing the origin of anthropomorphic projection, namely human disposition to attribute anthropomorphic features - like intentions or feelings—to artifacts. I shall discuss two concepts: relatedness and empathy, and argue that relatedness is the precondition for empathy. The fact that it is possible to attribute anthropomorphic features virtually to any object shows that resemblance is not the point. Anthropomorphism is a kind of relation that humans establish with an artifact, and in order to comprehend this phenomenon we have to focus on the relational aspect. I shall argue that what we call anthropomorphism is an extension to nonhumans of forms of interactions typical of human communication, i.e. the attribution to an artifact of the position of interlocutor in a possible dialogue. It can be shown that attributing to an artifact the position of interlocutor in a dialogue implies dealing with it as if it were endowed of the features characterizing human mind, i.e. mental states and emotions.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I consider that Chella and Manzotti in this article give a clear presentation of the theoretical issues involved in modeling machine consciousness, even if they take a position different from mine arguing against “biological chauvinism”.

  2. 2.

    Since its original publication in 1970, Mori’s work raised an intense debate. Criticisms pointed to the fact that the uncanny valley was a hypothesis that needs to be validated. Nonetheless, it proved productive and was applied to different areas of research [24]. More recently, a number of psychological studies have undertaken the empirical evaluation of the graph proposed by Mori (see for instance, [2527]). It is impossible to make here a synthesis of the results. To summarize we can assert that what emerges is an articulated set of phenomena that changes and enriches the concept of uncanny valley without disavowing it.

  3. 3.

    In his later work Piaget took a different position, maintaining that children actually are able to distinguish people from physical objects because they react to the child [30].

  4. 4.

    It is interesting to note that this area of studies had its origins in ethology. At the beginning the question was about the representations that chimpanzees had of the humans with whom they interacted [36].

  5. 5.

    In these studies the mother and the infant were in two separate rooms and they interacted viewing each other in a life-sized video image immediately before them. After some minutes of normal interaction the communication was perturbed showing to the infant mother’s behaviors that occurred in a previous time and were not correlated with the present infant’s behavior. While during live communication the infant behaved as in normal face-to-face interactions, in the replay phase the reaction of the infant was one of distress. In another condition it was the mother who unknowingly was presented with her infant’s reaction to her previous behavior and then unrelated with her current one. Several mothers remarked that the interaction was odd and all of them changed their communication focusing more on their own experience than on the infants’ one.

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Correspondence to Gabriella Airenti.

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Airenti, G. The Cognitive Bases of Anthropomorphism: From Relatedness to Empathy. Int J of Soc Robotics 7, 117–127 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12369-014-0263-x

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Keywords

  • Anthropomorphism
  • Relatedness
  • Empathy
  • Communication
  • Theory of mind