Dear Doctor: Human emotions, or just emotions


Q. You often hear that you’re not supposed to anthropomorphize and that you’re guilty of a scientific error if you do. But what does that mean, exactly?

Pippa Merta
St. Louis, Missouri

Dear Ms. Merta,

A. To anthropomorphize is to attribute human emotions to cats (and other animals). For decades it was said that doing so was a misinterpretation of cats’ behaviors and reactions to what was going on around them because mainstream science held the view that animals are not able to experience love, anger, joy, fear, or jealousy — and that they are not capable of conscious thoughts and the ability to make decisions.

But science is now coming around to what you, as an animal lover, know instinctively just by spending time with your pet every single day and participating in an unintentional research project. There’s no such thing as human emotions; emotions run through the animal kingdom, of which we are but one species.

The branch of science called cognitive ethology has looked at the emotions of cats via the scientific method, and researchers are now aware that animals in general have individual personalities and rich emotional lives. It’s one of the reasons we are so attached to our cats. They are emotional — and can share their feelings with us, if not through spoken language then through many other means of communication, including body language.

As the famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz put it when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1973, “When we speak of falling in love, of friendship, personal enmity or jealousy in…animals, we are not guilty of anthropomorphism.”


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