Errors in personification

“The sun is trying to break through the clouds.”

“The virus doesn’t like it when people stay home and isolate.”

“The computer didn’t expect you to type that.”

Of course, the sun, the virus and the computer aren’t people. And genes aren’t actually selfish, and new data demonstrates that we don’t really have a lizard brain.

But these aren’t errors at all. It makes it easier to predict what a non-human is going to do if we imagine that it has motivations and preferences that are like ours.

Two problems can arise, though:

The first is when we assert human motivations that don’t actually do a good job of prediction. For example, imagining that events are motivated by some sort of unrelated specific superstition or narrative.

The second is more problematic: It happens when we personalize other people–imagining that they’re not just humans, but they’re us. “If I were you…” is not always a useful predictor, because you’re not me. And vice versa.

Everyone has their own history, their own biases and their own irrationalities. Personification is a useful shortcut if it helps us make smart predictions about others, but it’s a trap if we assume that we’re the only ones who are right.