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Talking to your car is actually a sign of social intelligence

An image of Ciaran Varley
Ciaran Varley

Talking to your car, giving it encouragement, naming it – all signs of intelligence and not weirdness. That’s according to Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago.

“Historically, this has been treated as a sign of childishness or stupidity,” he told Quartz. “But it’s actually a natural byproduct of the tendency that makes humans uniquely smart on this planet.”

People have been naming stuff like swords and ships for yonks (and who could forget 2016's Boaty McBoatface debacle?). According to Epley, there are scientific and evolutionary explanations for why we do this.

Epley lays out three prime situations in which we tend to 'anthropomorphise' objects (or treat them like humans): the object looks like it has a face, we like it, or it's unpredictable.

Kind of like Knightrider or Brum.

BrumBBC

Humans tend to see faces in things. It’s an ability we’ve honed as a way of distinguishing potential friends from potential predators. We also tend to endow objects which look like they have eyes with a personality. (Perhaps that explains those eyelash thingies that people used to put on VW Beetles during the nineties.)

And we're more likely to project human attributes onto objects that we like. So, for example, we develop a fondness for a car that has been with us through the good times and the bad – the first dates, the days out, the long journeys to the mother-in-law’s. In fact, a survey by NPR found that, the more people liked their car, the more they would talk about it in terms of its beliefs, mind and behaviour.

Sometimes, this goes too far. Like that case of the fella who married his VW Beetle after having had sex with 999 cars. At that point, you’ve crossed over from anthropomorphism to mechaphilia - sexual attraction to machines. And let's not forget the woman who married the Eiffel Tower.

Man on carGetty Images

Then there’s unpredictability. Epley explains that we associate unpredictability with humans and, therefore, we’re more likely to treat our cars as human if they ‘decide’ not to start one morning, or suddenly blow a gasket on a dual carriageway during the school run.

This odd tendency is a direct result of humans' superior intelligence.

“For centuries, our willingness to recognize minds in nonhumans has been seen as a kind of stupidity, a childlike tendency toward anthropomorphism and superstition that educated and clear-thinking adults have outgrown,” writes Epley. “I think this view is both mistaken and unfortunate. Recognizing the mind of another human being involves the same psychological processes as recognizing a mind in other animals, a god, or even a gadget. It is a reflection of our brain’s greatest ability.”

Keep your scanners on, Kit.

Originally published 4 April 2017.