Around mid-February, someone on Reddit posted a meme that declared the following: “Sometimes, when I grab a cup from my cabinet, I will grab one that’s in the back and never gets used because I think the cup feels depressed that it isn’t fulfilling it’s life of holding liquids.”
The sentiment proved popular. “I used to work at a toy store and if anyone ever bought a stuffed animal I would leave its head sticking out of the bag.. so it could breathe,” commented one Redditor. “I actually cried when we switched microwaves when i was a kid. I felt like we should have given it a proper burial or something,” wrote another. “I feel bad for inanimate objects all the time,” confessed yet another. Hundreds of other comments carried on in a similar vein.
Why is this? Why do some of us sometimes sense a pang of guilt for throwing away a pair of worn-out shoes or neglecting to use a new set of headphones? We know these things are without joy or loneliness, yet every now and then our emotions inform us otherwise. Perhaps this is the result of all those Disney films featuring a motherly teapot or brave little toaster.
History, however, suggests this behavior predates any cartoon depiction of household items with people-like personalities. From the worship of idols to an animistic worldview, various cultures from around the world have long believed that material objects either contain spirits or possess some kind of special connection to supernatural beings that act on their own accord.
Despite the book’s title, anthropologist Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, for example, continues the perennial argument that the foundation of religion comes from our tendency to ascribe human characteristics to non-human things. Indeed, in an article published by the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers from Harvard and the University of Chicago say the term “anthropomorphism” originated with the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes. Only now, around 25 centuries later, they contend, are psychologists beginning to study this idea—and its inverse, dehumanization—in earnest.
From the worship of idols to an animistic worldview, various cultures from around the world have long believed that material objects either contain spirits or possess some kind of special connection to supernatural beings that act on their own accord.
“My take, which isn’t super exciting, is that this is basic human nature,” Shax Riegler, the executive editor of House Beautiful magazine and a Ph.D. candidate at New York City’s Bard Graduate Center, told me over the phone. “Some people definitely have these feelings more strongly than others, but I think it’s pretty common.”
A few years ago, Riegler taught a graduate-level course titled “Psychologies of Things: Emotion, Perception, and the Life of Inanimate Objects,” which explored the relationship between people and the stuff around them. One concept the class examined, Riegler says, was something called the transitional object, introduced by British pediatrician and child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in the mid-1900s. As an infant gets older, the theory asserts, she discovers her independence from other entities, especially her own mother. To ease the anxiety that accompanies this revelation, the infant will often transfer her maternal bond onto a favorite teddy bear or blanket. From our earliest years, then, it appears we enter a process of projecting living qualities onto non-living things.
Eventually, infants begin to separate the animate from the inanimate. According to one study on cognitive development, researchers from Montreal’s Concordia University found that nine-month-olds could distinguish between the two based on motion cues. Earlier research, however, suggests that while a three-year-old might understand most aspects of this distinction, they still might not grasp that an oven doesn’t contain a brain, for instance.
In recent years, television shows such as National Geographic’s Taboo have introduced viewers to a man who shares a romantic and sometimes sexual relationship with his car. BuzzFeed published an entire list of people who get intimate with inanimate objects. Then there’s the documentary Strange Love: Married to the Eiffel Tower, which profiles a woman who apparently senses a deep connection with public structures. “Despite our vast differences, we are very much in love, and our love in itself is no different from any other love that exists between two beings,” she says about the Golden Gate Bridge as the film begins.
Another way of approaching this propensity to infuse objects with feelings is through synesthesia, a neurological condition that activates certain senses in an individual when he encounters certain stimuli (e.g. numbers become inseparable from particular colors; a note on the piano elicits the taste of lobster). In one case study, researchers in Canada examined a patient with synesthesia who claimed to experience distinct, stable personalities in letters, shapes, and furniture. Upon testing, her perspective remained consistent for both familiar and novel objects. While the study makes no claims that all people with this condition are prone to thinking of ottomans as angry or triangles as shy, NPR reports that approximately one in every 27 people have some version of synesthesia.
And as for that Redditor who thought his or her old microwave deserved a proper burial, well, it turns out some people in Japan participate in Hari-Kuyo, also known as the Festival of Broken Needles, whereby participants hold a memorial service for worn-out needles and lay them to rest in gratitude for their years of service.
While some of these relationships seem a bit suspect, they do demonstrate what can happen when people personify things to the extreme. If anything, these examples show how far the human imagination can go (or how desperate some people are for attention). And though it’s not clear how many people view inanimate objects as having rich private lives or how often, all of the above suggests the phenomenon is neither new nor unusual. We are emotional creatures, and our emotions involuntarily attach themselves to all sorts of things, from places we’ve visited to a pair of earrings grandma left behind after she died to a cup located near the back of the cabinet.