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Other APA Guidelines: Anthropomorphism

Basics of Anthropomorphism

We, in the Writing Center, understand that writing without anthropomorphisms is challenging. Attributing verbs to nouns, appropriately, is one way that writers make their communication more or less clear to readers. Referring to yourself in the third person (e.g., “the researcher”) or using the editorial “we” (e.g., “we expect that”) can make things unclear for your reader. Exactly who is taking action (the author, other researchers whom the author has reviewed in the study, or someone else) needs to be clear to the reader. Using these ways to refer to yourself may also mislead readers. “Inappropriately or illogically attributing action in an effort to be objective can be misleading” (APA, 2013, p. 69).

Anthropomorphism (“an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics” [Merriam-Webster, n.d.]) is an example of “undesirable attribution” (APA, 2013, p. 69), and it is one of the most common APA issues that we find in student writing. Essentially, writing with anthropomorphism means that the writer attributes action to objects that cannot take that action.

This is a vexing issue. Writers/researchers may often see it in other styles of scholarly writing, so it may well appear in journal articles or books that are not written in APA style. Remember that the “prime objective” of social scientific writing is “clear communication,” according to APA (2013, p. 69). That is why continuity, smoothness and economy of expression, an appropriately formal tone, and precision and clarity are so important and emphasized by the Walden Writing Center.

The concern with anthropomorphism is that objects cannot take human-like action. Objects can take some types of action. What is important is that the action (verb) the object does or takes is appropriate for that object.

Examples of Anthropomorphism

Below are some common anthropomorphic errors and suggested fixes using the first person (or other pronouns/proper nouns) for clarity. It is important to clearly indicate the writer/researcher is the action taker.

Incorrect:  The study explored turnover in a small grocery store.

Issue: This is incorrect because the study cannot explore.  Active verbs, like exploring, need to be taken by a person or group of people.

Correct:  In this study, I explored turnover in a small grocery store.

Here, it is possible to use the first person to clarify action and avoid anthropomorphic writing (see APA, 2010, p. 69).

Incorrect:  Research has found that history professors were satisfied with their jobs.

Issue: Research does not really find; it is simply the investigation itself.  The researchers are the ones who should be taking active verbs like drawing the conclusions based on the research, so only they should be doing the finding.

Correct:  Researchers have found that history professors were satisfied with their jobs.

Incorrect: The article discussed the prevalence of HIV in suburban communities.

Issue: An article cannot discuss, it is simply written composition, but the writer/author/researcher can.  Again, this is an active verb that involves a very human action.  Discussing, talking, and speaking are verbs that it only makes sense for humans to do.

Correct: Rogers (2010) discussed the prevalence of HIV in suburban communities.

Incorrect: Leadership determined the strategic approach to implement in knowledge management.

Issue: “Leadership” is a broader, generalized term.  In order to be clear and specific, indicate that it was people, as leaders, who did the determining.

Correct: Leaders in the organization determined the strategic approach to implement in knowledge management

Keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules on anthropomorphism. Reducing anthropomorphic writing has to do with what makes sense. If it makes sense for that object to take that action, then it is acceptable.

Theories/Literature, Methods, Tables, and Results

Remember that anthropomorphism is about whether it makes sense for that object to take that action.  Theories, models, tables, data, results, etc., can take some actions that make sense for these nouns.

Theories, results, and so on, can show, present, or indicate (see APA, 2010, p. 69):

  • The results showed a relationship between time spent in the intervention program and student standardized test scores.
  • The table presents information on the demographics of this study.
  • These data demonstrated that increasing awareness of diabetes indicators can help patients reduce their risk of being diagnosed.
  • The theory indicates that societies work much like ecological systems, with different groups playing different and necessary roles in the larger system.

It does not always make sense for theories, results, and so on, to take other kinds of actions. For example, consider the active verbs here and whether it would be best if a person or group of people took the action described by the verbs:

  • The theory concluded that transformational leadership style influences follower job satisfaction.
    • This makes more sense as: 
    • The researchers concluded that transformational leadership style influences follower job satisfaction
  • The theory determined that society operates based on a type of ecology analogous to a biological ecosystem.
    • Did the theory really determine this?  Again, this verb makes more sense when done by a human:
    • Through their research, population ecology theorists have determined that society operates based on a type of ecology analogous to a biological ecosystem.
    • Or: In their development of the population ecology theory, the researchers determined that society operates based on a type of ecology analogous to a biological ecosystem.
  • The study explored the effect of retention strategies on RNs in an urgent care center.
    • In the study, I explored the effect of retention strategies on RNs in an urgent care center.
  • The study examined the relationship between childhood bullying experiences and later life friendship attachments.
    • In this study, I examined the relationship between childhood bullying experiences and later life friendship attachments.

Organizations

Organizations, as groups of people, can take actions that are appropriate for human actors:

  • Johnson & Johnson recalled products from Target store shelves.
  • The school board voted to require school uniforms.
  • The Society of Professional Journalists issued new ethics guidelines.
  • The hospital implemented new procedures regarding RN staffing requirements.

Strategies

From APA an APA Style Expert: “Ask yourself whether it starts to sound weird to not list the name of a person. If it makes sense, it's okay. For example, I might say ‘Maslow's hierarchy of needs states that different needs have different importance’ and I would not reword this to "Maslow stated in his hierarchy of needs that different needs...." (C. Lee, personal communication, February 25, 2016).

References

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Merriam Webster. (n.d.). Anthropomorphism. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anthropomorphism

Knowledge Check: Anthropomorphism