Religion, Culture, and the Personification of Non-Human Entities

Religion, Culture, and the Personification of Non-Human Entities

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width=350Human beings are intensely relational and the desire for pleasant interactions with others is a fundamental human motive (Baumeister and Leary).  Yet, we may ask, are human relationships limited to same species interactions, or are humans likely to have social, moral, and emotional interactions with other kinds of entities?  Do animals, plants, objects, or heavenly bodies (both material and immaterial) count as “others”?  Can non-human entities be persons?

Defining Personhood

Philosophers and anthropologists have extensively explored differences in the psychological construct of personhood, theorizing about the nature of persons, their social status, moral responsibilities, or legal rights (e.g., Dennett; Locke; Mauss; Shweder and Bourne; Strawson).  However, there has been little consensus as to what constitutes personhood or how the term “person” is related to the psychological constructs of “human” and “self.”   Some have proposed that persons must have bodies (Strawson); have particular kinds of mental attributes, be able to communicate, or have moral rights and responsibilities (Dennett).  In a dualist, Cartesian framework, John Locke has also argued that the “real” person is the vital, living part – the soul (Locke).  Are these merely the criteria of philosophers, or do ordinary people consider each of these qualifications when assigning personhood?

In the social sciences the term “person” has generally been used to refer to a state of being, and more particularly to a biological human being, with certain physical features and spatio-temporal continuity.  A textbook definition of “person” from a social psychological viewpoint refers to “features or characteristics that individuals carry into social situations” – an intentional, human agent (Kenrick, Neuberg and Cialdini 15).  We may also think of a person as being someone like my “self ,” someone who is also self-aware, capable of reflecting on their own actions, intentions, and thoughts. 

On the other hand, personhood may be cast in terms of behavioral outcomes; that is, in terms of identifying those capable of social interaction, or having moral rights and responsibilities.  Philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that intentionality (as a prerequisite for personhood) is defined as a stance taken toward the entity, and that the moral notions of personhood are not necessarily separate from metaphysical ones: instead, these criteria “are unstable resting points on the same continuum” (Dennett 285).  Still the question remains whether non-human entities are “persons.” 

In the studies presented here, we take the stance that personhood is honorific; that is, any entity is a person if a perceiver judges it accordingly.  Our goal was to better understand the extent to which humans from different cultures and religious traditions attribute personhood across different kinds of entities, and to explore their reasons for doing so.

Non-human candidates for personhood

The category person appears to be a fuzzy set with religious, social, and moral implications.  Proponents of the Great Ape Personhood Movement, for example, have declared that great apes should be members of a “community of equals” with humans (Cavalieri & Singer).  They argue that apes share 98% of DNA with humans, can communicate with sign language, are self-aware and intelligent, and are as morally responsible as a mentally incapacitated human. 

There is ethnographic evidence that human beings in tribal societies, too, regularly interact with a variety of naturally occurring entities that are not human (e.g., Bird-David; Harvey).  Using Native American Ojibwa ontology as an example, A. Irving Hallowell argues that for many Native American Indians, the central goal of life is to achieve reciprocal relations with both human persons and the non-human persons, celestial orbs, plants, and others with whom they share the environment (Hallowell).  Reciprocity is the standard of ethical behavior.  In addition, every person (and thing) with whom one has good relations is brought into the kinship system, and is referred to as “grandfather.”  These extended notions of personhood are of cardinal importance in understanding disputes over the allocation of natural resources (e.g., Medin, Ross and Cox).

If humans are promiscuous in their assignment of personhood, perhaps none are more so than theistic humans.  Tertullian (160-225 CE) is credited with the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity: God as three persons in One.  Diana Eck gives an account of Hindus bringing flowers and fruit to the temple, and standing in the presence of an idol, “to see and be seen by the deity” (Eck 3).  Indeed, Billy Graham has claimed that the world is filled with “powerful angels with drawn swords, set for our defense” (Graham backcover).

In another domain, transhumanists claim that communicative cyborgs, artificially intelligent robots, or sentient non-human life forms should be reconsidered as persons.  Thus, it appears that almost anything can be a candidate for personhood, whether material or immaterial, biologically living or artifact, human or non-human.

Investigating the personification of non-human entities

Human relationships appear to extend beyond the confines of human affairs.   Thus, we hypothesized that “person” may be thought of as a functional, superordinate, socio-psychological category that includes, but is not limited to, the biological category “human.”  Our hypothesis was that anthropomorphic entities such as God, animals, deceased humans, or robots may also be thought of as “persons.”  Moreover, we expected that membership in the social category “person” would differ across religious and cultural groups.  The results of the studies presented here confirm that the attribution of personhood does vary according to both type of entity, as well as the religious or cultural group of the perceiver.  

Study 1.  To begin to investigate culture differences in the attribution of personhood, an exploratory survey was administered to approximately 650 culturally diverse college students.  Participants included 419 Euro-Americans, 22 Native American Indians, 54 East Asians, 93 Hispanics, 46 multi-ethnic or African-American participants, and 15 participants from the Middle East.  These participants reported religious affiliations as being atheist, agnostic, Roman Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, mainline Protestant, Jewish, Mormon (Latter Day Saints), Muslim, or Holistic (our categorization of Buddhist, Hindu, New Age, American Native Traditionalist, Unity, and Spiritualist). 

Participants rated God, angels, demons, the dead, humans, chimpanzees, bears, dogs, trees, cars, and Santa Claus as to whether or not each entity was a person given a one to five point scale.  Consistent with our hypothesis, we found that Mormons were the most likely group to personify God, followed by Christians and Catholics.  Those who reported religious affiliation as being Mainline Protestant, Jewish, and broadly “holistic” were less likely to think of God as a person.  Finally, Muslims, agnostics, and atheist were the least likely to personify God.  These results mirror the results of national surveys in the U.S. (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life).   In addition, we found that Native American Indians were more likely to personify God and animals; Christians and Mormons were likely to personify God but not animals; atheists and agnostics were relatively likely to personify animals but not God, while respondents from the Middle East were unlikely to personify either God or animals. 

In this initial survey, our intent was to begin development of a scale to measure the attributes of personhood.  Thus, participants were asked to rate the extent to which the entities possessed each of 16 metaphysical and moral traits. Given space limitations of the present manuscript, our results are not reported here. 

Study 2.  A second survey was administered to over 450 college students to continue to investigate the extent to which people attribute personhood to non-human entities.  Our participants were mostly Euro-American but also included 26 African-Americans, 20 Asian-Americans, 57 Hispanics, 20 Native American Indians, and 26 Middle Eastern or multi-ethnic participants.  These same participants reported their religious affiliation as being atheist (n = 37), agnostic (n = 94), Roman Catholic (n = 144), non-Catholic Christian (n = 148), Mormon (n = 20), “Abrahamic” Muslim or Jewish (n = 22), or broadly classified as Holistic (n = 31).  Holistic traditions included Hindu, Bahai, Wiccan, Pagan, New Age, Buddhist, Spiritualist, and Native American Traditionalist. 

Each survey participant was shown a representative photo from each of six categories of entities: immaterial or material, biologically living or non-living, and human or non-human.  The participants rated each of the entities as to whether or not the entity was a person on a one to seven point scale.  The results showed that each of the entities was rated as being fully a “person” by at least some participant(s), and the overall mean ratings for each entity were statistically significant above the minimum rating of one.  

Figure 1 graphically depicts the mean ratings of personhood or humanness for each entity, with humans rated as being fully persons followed by fetuses (M = 5.28, SD = 2.12), deceased humans (M = 4.10, SD = 2.38), angels (M = 2.92, SD = 2.14), dogs (M = 2.82, SD = 2.16), bears (M = 2.21, SD = 1.89), robots (M = 1.54, SD = 1.2), and fire (M = 1.13, SD = .611), in that order.  Although it may seem surprising to some, 46 respondents “strongly agreed” (rating of 7) that both dogs and humans are real persons.  Six percent of the respondents rated fire as being greater than a value of one on the seven point scale.  Moreover, the differences between the ratings for personhood and the ratings for humanness were statistically significant across all entities, indicating that people do differentiate between the categories “person” and “human.”

Figure 1.     width=621

People do think of non-human entities as persons to varying degrees, but are ratings of personhood specific to cultural or religious groups?  For example, are some ethnic or religious groups more likely to endorse the personhood of animals, robots, or angelic beings?  Using statistical analysis techniques (ANOVA and independent t-tests), we found several statistically significant differences between groups.  As can be seen from the summary in Table 1, American Indians were much more likely than other ethnic or religious groups to think of fire, bears, and fetuses as persons, but not deceased humans.  Euro-American atheists were also more likely to say that fire and animals were persons, but not fetuses, the dead, or angels.  Atheists were also much more likely to say that robots are persons, whereas theists (Mormons and Christians, especially) did not.  In stark contrast to atheists, members of the Latter Day Saints Church (Mormons) reported that fetuses, the dead, and angels were persons, but not bears or robots. 

Table 1.     width=653

Interestingly, although one might expect holistic groups to differ from Catholic and/or Christian groups, and although there were trends in the data for holistic groups to personify animals to a greater extent than Christians for example, these differences were not significant using rigorous statistical analysis techniques.  Additionally,  as a group, the Mormon participants were much more likely than their Christian or Catholic peers to endorse what we would regard as a strong, anthropocentric, hierarchical worldview.

Previous psychological research has shown that there are basic, natural categories, including the species homo sapiens (Rosch, Mervis and Gray; Medin and Atran).  However, the boundaries of natural categories are not always well defined.  Indeed, even within a basic category such as human, ratings in our survey differed substantially such that a living adult human, a fetus, or human remains may be categorized as “human” but may not be classified as sociable and/or moral “persons” by different individuals.  On the other hand, we have also shown that even typical U.S. college students report that there are “persons” who are not human – including fire, angels, robots, dogs, and bears.  In sum, people do attribute personhood to humans, non-humans, and non-living humans, but the frequency of those attributions varies across different kinds of entities.   Moreover, the attribution of personhood to various kinds of entities varies by cultural and religious group.

Criteria for personhood

What criteria do people use in ascribing personhood to non-human or non-living entities?  We have briefly reviewed (above) several of the criteria suggested by philosophers; for example, rationality, intentionality, self-awareness, verbal communication, or moral responsibility.

How important are mental attributes in assigning personhood?  Heider and Simmel were the first psychologists to empirically demonstrate that people attribute intentional, mental states even to bouncing balls or geometric figures in nonrandom motion.  In the past decade, psychologists have begun to theorize that ordinary social cognitions, such as Theory of Mind (the implicit notion that others have minds) and over-vigilance in the attribution of causality, spawn anthropomorphic thinking.  Thus, people observe events in the world and, in the absence of suitable mechanistic explanations, attribute the events to non-human agents with potentially harmful intentions.  The need for humans to explain the unpredictable through the attribution of intentional states has variously been referred to as effectance motivation (Epley, Waytz and Cacioppo) or hyperactive agency detection (Boyer).

Indeed, studies have shown that in Euro-American culture, mental states are central in attributing causality (e.g., Choi, Nisbett and Norenzayan; Jones and Nisbett).  However, in non-Western culture there is often a greater emphasis on situational factors, a person’s behavior, or the influence of spiritual forces to explain social situations (Lilliard).  Therefore, sociability or perhaps having a “spirit” or “lifeforce” may be overlooked dimensions of personhood in current theories of anthropomorphism.  For example, Epley, Akalis and Waytz have shown that priming loneliness increases anthropomorphic thinking about well-known pets – indicating that sociability is another important criteria for personification.  As anthropologist Graham Harvey contends, “Persons are those with whom other persons interact with varying degrees of reciprocity. Persons may be spoken with . . . Persons are volitional, relational, cultural and social beings. They demonstrate intentionality and agency . . . and neither material form nor spiritual or mental faculties are definitive” (Harvey xvii).

Our goal, therefore, was to test different classes of criteria for personhood among our survey respondents.  To that end, participants were also asked to provide ratings, with a range of 1 to 7, regarding the extent to which these entities possessed each of 22 human-like attributes. The rated attributes were: 1) mental – thinking, learning, planning, remembering; 2) social – communicative and capable of interaction; 3) emotional – sad, joyful, angry, loving; 4) moral – having rights, respect, respectful of others, and responsibilities; 5) essence – ability to exist without a physical body, having a spirit or essence, and a life force; and 6) kin – being kin, related to, or feeling closeness to the entity.  All attribute statements were presented in sentence format (i.e., “Bears can exist without bear bodies,” “Bears can think”, etc.) in a single block for each entity. 

Of course, sociability and emotion seem to presuppose mental states, to at least some degree.   Indeed, collapsed across all groups, statistical analyses of our survey results revealed that, mental capabilities were important predictors of the attribution of personhood for all of the entities.  However, having a mind was not a sufficient cause for attributing personhood; instead, each of the other criteria made unique and statistically significant contributions in specific cases.   

Since they were the most extreme groups in their survey responses, we contrasted the criteria reportedly used by atheists, Mormons, and American Indians to better understand the differences between ethnic and religious groups in the personification of non-living or non-human entities.   For atheists, all of whom were Euro-American, a sense of kinship with fire, robots, bears, and dogs was the best predictor of personhood for these entities.  The three survey questions regarding kinship were “I feel a sense of kinship to xxx”, “I am related to xxx”, and “I feel very close to xxx.”  Mormons, on the other hand, did not (as a group) consider kinship to be an important characteristic in determining personhood.  Instead, the capacity to feel emotion was the best predictor of personhood for angels and the dead.  Notably, nearly all of the Mormons’ responses regarding fetuses as persons could be predicted from the three questions regarding having an essence or spirit, being able to exist without a body, and having a lifeforce.  

The pattern of responses from the Native American Indians was less clear with, inexplicably, almost no correlation between rating a fetus as a person and any of the six broad classification criteria.  Both kinship and emotional capacity were important in rating robots and bears, but kinship was not at all important in rating dogs.  Instead, having a spirit seemed to be a more important characteristic for Native American Indians’ ratings of dogs as persons.  It may be that the study was underpowered (n = 20) to detect stable group differences.  Alternatively, as a group, American Indians’ categorization strategies may be more context dependent and, thus, they performed in unexpected ways on this particular categorization task.  Another possibility is that Native American Indians are a heterogeneous group with different tribal and religious affiliations that may influence views about who or what is in the world.

Taken together, these findings suggest that there are not universal, conscious determinants of personhood, but that different members of various cultural and religious groups assign personhood according to the worldviews and values endorsed by those groups.  The classification of personhood varies not only by type of entity but also according to the salient attributes of the entity in the mind of the perceiver.

Personification and Social Cognition

We concluded from the results of our studies that “person” is a superordinate category that includes many but not all humans and, yet, is not limited to human beings.  However, the way in which human beings relate with others in the world is centrally determined by two psychological processes: first, how we categorize those others as investigated in the study presented above, and second, how we construe ourselves in relation with others.  In other words, person perception depends not only on the perceptible attributes of the entity, but also upon the relational style of the perceiver.  Previous research has shown that our social relations are influenced by a myriad of factors; however, here we focus on the influence of cognitive style. 

Recent research in psychology has focused on two disparate, culturally grounded cognitive styles: holistic and analytical.  Holistic cognitive styles differ from analytical styles in many ways, including what gets noticed, the strategies used in categorization, and the kinds of information that are deemed relevant.  Holism is thought to derive from an Asian cultural milieu whereas analytical thinking is often traced to Greek philosophical thought.  Regardless of the intellectual history of these two cognitive styles, psychologists have found a constellation of distinct cognitive processes related to each style of thinking (e.g., Nisbett and Masuda; Nisbett, Choi and Peng).

width=354Holistic has been found to differ from analytical thinking on at least four different dimensions: attention, causal attribution, perception of change, and contradiction.  First, holistic thinkers tend to see the world as a whole collection of interpenetrating and interrelated substances whereas analytical thinkers tend to see the world as a collection of separate objects.  Consequently, the attention of holistic thinkers is typically oriented toward the contextual field rather than the individual objects within the field that are the focus of the analytic thinker (e.g., Miyamoto, Nisbett and Masuda).  Second, holistic thinkers tend to attribute causality to a greater number of sources including both the mental state of the actor as well as the surrounding situation.  Analytical thinkers, on the other hand, are more prone to explain events by attributing mental and emotional states without the same regard to the situation (e.g., Morris and Peng).  Third, holistic thinkers expect change and cylical fluctuations in events while analytic thinkers hold a more linear perspective, expecting patterns, traits, and events to be stable across time.  Finally, perhaps due to the tendency to perceive multi-causality, holistic thinkers are more likely to consider contrasting arguments and choosing the middle ground whereas analytic thinkers are more intent on choosing between opposing arguments.

These differences in cognitive style are, in turn, highly correlated with the ways people construe themselves in relation to others.  A large body of psychological research has shown that members of cultures characterized by analytical cognitive styles are also more individualistic in their social relationships relative to the more interdependent people in holistic cultures.  Although there are certainly vast differences between individuals in any culture, Americans typically emphasize personal goals, uniqueness, and internal mental states as causes for behavior.  Conversely, for example, the Chinese are typically more likely to value group identity, harmony, and the welfare of others over and above individual recognition (Markus and Kitayama).  Indeed, differences between holistic and analytical cognitive styles, and between interdepenedent and independent self-construal, have generally been framed as East versus West differences. 

Holistic thinkers tend to be more socio-centric and anlytical thinkers more ego-centric in their relational styles, and these different ways of thinking and relating may have spillover effects regarding the attribution of personhood.  It seems likely, for example, that people acustomed to interdependent relationships and holistic thinking may also be more likely to include non-human entities in their social sphere.  For example, Menominee and Mayan children are known to be adept at recognizing fine speciation distinctions in mammals, yet these Native American Indians are also less anthropocentric in their thinking and tend to interact with nature in more relational ways than do their Euro-American counterparts (Medin and Atran).  On the other hand, belief in God as a purposeful agent is associated with rule-based, stable, and hierarchical categorization strategies (Diesendruck and Haber).  Thus, we would expect theists to judge all humans– whether living, disabled, unborn, or deceased – and human-like entities (such as angels) as having special status as potential persons, over and above that of animals or artifacts.   Indeed, this is the pattern of results we have consistently found in the studies presented here.  What remains puzzling is why those with more interdependent and egalitarian worldviews are, nevertheless, less likely to regard unborn and deceased humans as persons.  As one participant commented, “I questioned myself as to why I would rate a dog as a person but then rate a fetus as not being a person at all.”


Although the psychological construct “person” commonly refers to a human being as distinguished from an animal or object, provides twelve nuanced definitions including a self-conscious or rational being in philosophy, a sociable being in sociology, a group of humans in jurisprudence, or a character or role in a story.  Thus, there are different, yet overlapping modes of conceptualizing or perceiving “persons.”    In the social sciences, the categories of “person” and “human” have been mostly used interchangeably.  However, the studies presented here show that “person” is more accurately described as a superordinate, social psychological category that includes, but is not limited to, the biological category “human.” 

In at least two separate surveys of over 1,000 college students, we have shown that God, animals, ancestors, or robots may also be thought of as “persons” by certain cultural or religious groups.  Moreover, the criteria for attributing personhood are not merely feature-driven but, instead, are multidimensional and include attributions of mental/emotional states, moral rights and responsibilities, sociability, perceived kinship and “essence” – that is, a soul, a spiritual essence, or life.   

Our study is limited in at least three ways.  First, our results are based on self-reported survey data.  Recently our research has focused on a language free assessment of attitudes regarding personhood using multi-dimensional scaling techniques.   Second, we have measured personhood with, essentially, anthropocentric criteria.  Entities such as trees, blood, land, or demons may be related to in very social ways but not possess the traits or responses we have measured here.  Moreover, the entities in these studies were mostly potential “friends.”  Future studies should investigate human relations with non-human potential “foes.”  It may be that negatively valenced relationships have determining criteria that we have not included here. Third, we recognize that in some cultures, personhood, agency, and “life” are potentials and not possessions (e.g., Bird-David; Shweder and Bourne).  Therefore, this study may not uncover, or may mistakenly find, more context-dependent classification schemes.  Still, our research provides a scientific demonstration of the superordinate, social category “person” and also shows that the potential for social, moral, and emotional interaction –i.e., relationship – with non-humans depends greatly upon not only the features of the entity, but also upon the perceiver’s religious or cultural group. 

Different but overlapping criteria for personhood are particularly troublesome when social, legal, or moral questions come into play.  For example, the attribution of personhood to non-living or non-human entities is of cardinal importance in understanding disputes over the allocation of natural resources or the formation of public policies regarding the unborn, stem cell research, trans-human issues and, perhaps, even land.  We suggest that understanding the extent to which members of various cultural and religious groups attribute personhood to different entities is key in understanding scientific, religious, and international conflicts.

The present study also suggests that alternative worldviews are more than a set of beliefs dealing with the nature of reality or the institution of moral standards.  Instead, for many religious people, the world is populated with powerful non-human agents who may include immaterial or material, animate or inanimate, human or non-human personified beings who must be acknowledged and who may be deemed to have certain rights and responsibilities. 


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