Basics of Anthropomorphism
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman entities, objects, or concepts. It results in ambiguity or misleading communication and thus should be avoided in APA style. However, common usage in academic writing includes some phrases such as "the results suggest" that, although examples of anthropomorphism, are acceptable for use because they do not lead to confusion. See APA 7, Section 4.11 for more information.
Examples of Anthropomorphism
Consider the following examples of anthropomorphism and possible revisions for greater clarity. Note that APA style recommends avoiding anthropomorphism but notes that "many acceptable constructions in widespread use do not constitute anthropomorphism because they do not impede understanding or mislead readers" (APA, 2020, p. 117).
Problematic usage: The study concluded that increased screen time contributed to children's inability to perform higher-order cognitive tasks.
- This phrasing suggests that the study, an inanimate object, can draw conclusions.
Possible revision: The study addresses the impact of increased screen time on children's ability to perform higher-order cognitive tasks.
- This revision uses common phrasing in academic writing, "The study addresses." In this phrase, the verb "addresses" is acceptable because it is not an active verb that is better suited to human actors.
Possible revision: In this study, I concluded that increased screen time contributed to children's inability to perform higher-order cognitive tasks.
- This revision clearly identifies "I" as the person drawing the conclusions. Whenever possible, use the first-person pronoun "I" for clarity in describing your study.
Problematic usage: The study explored turnover in a small grocery store.
- This phrasing suggests that a study, an inanimate object, can explore. Active verbs, like exploring, need to be taken by a person or group of people.
Possible revision: 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, 2020, p. 120).
Problematic usage: The article discussed the prevalence of HIV in suburban communities.
- An article cannot discuss because 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.
Possible revision: Rogers (2010) discussed the prevalence of HIV in suburban communities.
Problematic phrasing: Leadership determined the strategic approach to implement in knowledge management.
- “Leadership” is a broader, generalized term. In order to be clear and specific, indicate that it was people, as leaders, who did the determining.
Possible revision: Leaders in the organization determined the strategic approach to implement in knowledge management
Verbs for Theories, Studies, and Results
Theories, studies, results, and other aspects of research can take certain verbs in common usage without leading to confusion:
- focus on
Some examples are
- 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.
- The theory indicates that societies work much like ecological systems, with different groups playing different and necessary roles in the larger system.
Theories, studies, results, and other aspects of research are sometimes paired with other kinds of actions that obscure the clarity of who is doing the action, though. 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:
- Less clear phrasing: The theory concluded that transformational leadership style influences follower job satisfaction.
- Revised for clarity: The theorists concluded that transformational leadership style influences follower job satisfaction
- Less clear phrasing: The theory determined that society operates based on a type of ecology analogous to a biological ecosystem.
- Revised for clarity: Through their research, population ecology theorists have determined that society operates based on a type of ecology analogous to a biological ecosystem.
- Less clear phrasing: The study explored the effect of retention strategies on RNs in an urgent care center.
- Revised for clarity: In the study, I explored the effect of retention strategies on RNs in an urgent care center.
- Less clear phrasing: The study examined the relationship between childhood bullying experiences and later life friendship attachments.
- Revised for clarity: In this study, I examined the relationship between childhood bullying experiences and later life friendship attachments.
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.
However, avoid ascribing actions to organizations when it is important to understand which specific people within the organization performed the action.
- Problematic phrasing: The factory walked out on strike.
- Possible revision: All nonmanagement employees of the factory walked out on strike.
From 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).
American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.).