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Anthropomorphizing: (Un)conscious mechanisms of matching the self with the relevant features of individual environments

Kurt Kotrschal

Professor at the University of Vienna, Department for Behavioural Biology, Department of Cognitive Biology and head of the Konrad Lorenz Forschungsstelle, Grünau

Humans cannot help but appropriating the relevant items in their environment – real or imagination – by projecting their own mental construction upon them. As a human universal, we readily attribute intentionality and mental states to living and nonliving entities. In fact, people automatically and/or deliberately anthropomorphize and mentalize other animals, cars, computers and even god.  Thereby, individuals develop adaptive mental representations serving as working models and for generating expectations and predictions in interacting with the environment. It is increasingly known that many fundamental brain and cognitive mechanisms are widely shared among vertebrates including man, due to common phylogeny or parallel evolution. Therefore, the human mental mechanisms of putting oneself into perspective with one´s own environment may also be regarded as a general working model, how other mammals and birds find their place in their own, individual environments. This synthetic concept certainly embraces the species-specific and individual differences of how the world is mentally represented, in the sense of Jakob von Uexküll´s “Umwelt” or Konrad Lorenz´ “Kumpan” concept.

Recent efforts to understand the driving forces behind anthropomorphism have focused on its motivational underpinnings. By contrast, the underlying cognitive and neuropsychological processes have never been considered in detail. Increasing interest in anthropomorphism and its consequences is sparked by its importance for animal welfare, conservation and even animal behaviour research. In our talk, we will identify a set of potential cognitive mechanisms – traditionally considered to involve more or less consciousness – underlying the attribution of mental states to nonhuman animals via a dual process framework. We propose that mental state attributions are supported by processes evolved in the social domain, such as motor matching mechanisms and basic empathy, but also by domain-general mechanisms such as inductive and causal reasoning. We conclude that the activation of these domain-specific and domain-general mechanisms, involving more or less consciousness, will depend on the type of information available to the observer and on other factors.

With contributions from

Prof. Dr. Hermann Prossinger (Department of Anthropology, University of Vienna)

Prof. Dr. Gustav Bernroider (Department of Neurobiology, University of Salzburg)

Moderated by

Former Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences, emer. Prof. Dr. Christian Noe (Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of Vienna)

Vienna Conference on Consciousness
Department für Verhaltensbiologie
Universität Wien

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