Do you have a name for your car? I do – her (yes, “her”) name is Kari, pronounced “CAR-ee”. Get it? I gave Kari the same name as the woman who sold her to me. I know I’m not the only person who does this kind of thing, though I might be the only person who used a pun. But why do people do this? What is behind our fascination with assigning proper names to things or beings that don’t really need one? Why do we humans name EVERYTHING that our little hearts see?
I shall call you…
The fancy word for this facet of human behavior is “anthropomorphize”. It means to attribute human qualities to an animal or object. Apparently, psychologists say that we have a tendency to think that all things have the same level of understanding as we humans do. This is easy to see in our pets. Don’t get upset – I have two cats that I adore, and I KNOW in my heart they love me. But really, our pets just aren’t capable of the exact same level of reasoning that we are. I don’t think that means that our pets don’t care about us – they just don’t have the same human understanding about it that we have.
It’s natural that we would name our pets, but have you ever assigned a name to an animal that doesn’t belong to you? My husband and I had a katydid hanging out in our garage for a few days. We left her alone because Wikipedia told me the females can bite. I named her…what else…Katy. Turns out, that was my human brain trying to understand her. It’s our empathetic human brains trying to make a connection. I was trying to assign human thoughts to her, when in all likelihood, she had only three thoughts, or, more accurately, instincts – “threat”, “food”, or “mate”.
Survival of the silliest
Believe it or not, anthropomorphizing is also hard-wired into humans as a survival technique. When we assign human qualities to something, we assume that thing has some form of intelligence. We assume that its behavior is intentional and directly related to us. It’s safer to think that every snake we see is out to get us and going to bite us instead of blindly trusting all snakes. The downside of this is thinking that things are out to get us that actually aren’t. Have you ever tripped over something in your house and yelled at it? The thing didn’t get in your way intentionally, but it seems like it did. We assigned a human motivation to explain why we got hurt.
Congrats! You’re normal!
The good news is that if you’re the kind of person who names things in your life, you’re totally normal. Though some people might think anthropomorphizing means you’re crazy or immature, the opposite is actually true. No other species on Earth engages in this behavior. Your brain just has a high level of social cognition. We identify a special relationship between us and the thing we’ve named. It becomes part of our identity – think of a musician who names his guitar.
The next time you squelch the urge to give your houseplant a name, go ahead and do it anyway! If anyone teases you about it, you can now give them scientific explanations for why humans need to name everything. I, for one, plan on naming more things in my life. Probably with puns. Definitely with puns.