For years, I’ve been fascinated with exploring social and behavioral enigmas. The majority of the people in my life have direct or indirect experience with mental illnesses. One of the most interesting and promising aspects of human behavior that is still not fully understood is anthropomorphization. Despite having grown up in a broken household that repeatedly pushed me to excel, I’ve been able to learn to succeed under pressure and have developed normally socially. I have always had the natural tendency to anthropomorphize even after my childhood experiences, making my topic even more personal and intriguing. Recently, as a high school student, a number of questions have been raised about mine and others’ safety in the light of the growing number of mass shootings.
This pressing danger has led me to question the American school system’s method of addressing mental illness in their students and if it could be improved through the use of the inability to anthropomorphize to identify at-risk students before they become hostile. In the course of my research, while I am unconsciously biased towards individuals with the ability to anthropomorphize, I intend to prevent this from skewing my results by analyzing the characteristics of the individuals in conjunction with their ability to anthropomorphize and make no selections of participants or data based on ability to anthropomorphize. This will ensure I am not adversely affecting the results of my study, because I have no direct decisions in the individuals participating in the study or the data that is used. The Problem Statement In today’s tumultuous times, it is more pertinent than ever to be able to properly diagnose mental illnesses in adolescents. Nearly every week violence claims the lives of students. While many argue on the accessibility of weapons, we must turn our focus to the root of the problem and examine the mental states the individuals reached in order to act so horrendously. Often the perpetrator went years without proper diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses and violent tendencies. Teachers are expected to serve as a stand in psychologist and recognize the danger before it escalates to violence. Further, many students live with undiagnosed anxiety, depression, etc. due to a lack of access to counseling or an unwillingness to seek help due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Purpose After observing this dilemma, I concluded there must be a basic test to differentiate from non-threatening mental issues such as social anxiety and depression from violent tendencies due to behavioral issues. While related, the eventual results of the different cognitive abnormalities are vastly different. It is crucial to separate those with mental challenges from those who pose a threat to others. I landed on the concept of the inability to anthropomorphize as the basis for identifying social problems that would likely lead to violence.
To summarize, the purpose of my research was to determine if the inability to anthropomorphize could be used as a valid qualifier for violent tendencies stemming from social abnormalities and to develop a sound test of anthropomorphization ability. Research Question Before examining the possible applications in educational environments for a test of this type, I first had to establish the validity of the test. I, therefore, asked, “Can a test for the ability to anthropomorphize be used to identify individuals with violent tendencies due to social problems?”Secondary Questions “Could this test be used in an educational environment to identify at risk individuals before they harmed others?” and “Could this test differentiate between non-violent and violent social abnormalities?”SECTION II Literature Review In the course of my research, I was pleasantly surprised to find an abundance of information related to my topic, despite the lack of any investigation into or direct correlation specifically between anthropomorphization and social problems. The majority of articles were either focused on the neurological basis for social problems or the biochemical basis for anthropomorphization/bonding with animals or non-humans. Through these shared commonalities for neurochemical responses, or lack thereof, I was able to draw a connection between social abnormalities and the ability to anthropomorphize. Oxytocin plays an important role in both humans and animals as the vital foundation for complex social interactions. As cited by Wayne Pacelle in The Bond, Meg Olmert presents evidence that oxytocin is not only the social recognition hormone that allows humans to identify faces, express empathy for both humans and non-humans, and read emotions, but it is also responsible for human-animal bonds.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that promotes maternal instincts in animals, and labor contractions and lactation in humans. When released during bonding interactions, oxytocin has been found to decrease anxiety and blood pressure. (25) Pacelle also included research from Sue Carter, who found that the increased brain production of oxytocin and vasopressin in Prairie Voles is responsible for their exhibition of monogamy, powerful social bonds, and complex social structure. (26) Furthermore, Pacelle wrote on the study by Johannes Odendaal and Roy Meintjes that illustrated that a positive interaction between a human and a dog doubled oxytocin production in both species. (26) Conversely, because oxytocin is a key factor in social interactions, the lack of it can manifest itself as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, autism, etc. Jessica Wright provides a glimpse into the effects of external oxytocin on social skills in Oxytocin spray boosts social skills in children with autism. Wright cites a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigating the effects of oxytocin on the social skills of people with autism. Initially, the study determined that children with high levels of blood oxytocin have better social skills than those with low levels. Building on this, the researchers had parents of autistic children ages 6-12 administer a nasal spray twice a day for four weeks. They assessed blood levels of oxytocin before and after the study. 16 of the children’s spray contained oxytocin, and 18 were placebos. The parents measured social skills using a survey named the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS).
Using a statistical, the researchers determined that the children who were administered oxytocin improved on the SRS more than those who were given the placebo spray. Overall, children with the lowest initial levels of blood oxytocin had the largest increase in SRS score. (Wright)Wright also included a citation from Antonio Hardan, who plans to conduct a long-term study of the effects of external oxytocin on people with autism. Not only does he intend to measure oxytocin blood levels before, throughout, and after the treatment, but also to examine factors that affect the expression of the oxytocin-producing gene. (Wright) Through these many valuable investigations into human social interactions, the complex role of oxytocin in the brain begins to reveal itself. Further, oxytocin also plays a role in the tendency to anthropomorphize. As investigated by Dirk Scheele et al in A human tendency to anthropomorphize is enhanced by oxytocin, through ages of evolution, the human brain has adapted to be highly sensitive to social signals. Due to this, the brain also anthropomorphizes, assigning social meaning to animals and inanimate objects. Scheele et al conducted a study on 60 healthy female participants exploring the effect of an intranasal dose of synthetic hypothalamic peptide oxytocin or a placebo on the participants’ ability to anthropomorphize. They measured anthropomorphic tendencies through the subjects’ description of videos of socially suggestive geometric shapes.
Through this, Scheele et al found that the treatment increased the ability to anthropomorphize in response to the social stimuli of the video. This study proved that anthropomorphization in women is a direct result of oxytocin levels. (Scheele et al) This research further illustrated the vast and interconnected role of oxytocin in social behavior. Not only is it responsible for traditional social interactions and bonding, but for assigning complex social traits to non-human entities. This suggests that because oxytocin plays a role in both social skills and anthropomorphization, the lack of ability to anthropomorphize may be linked to deeper social problems. The tendency to over-anthropomorphize or the inability to can also reveal underlying social problems. In Social Cognition Unbound: Insights Into Anthropomorphization and Dehumanization Adam Waytz et al first illustrate the two factors that lead to excessive anthropomorphization, basic motivation for social connection and effectance. When individuals lack adequate social connections with other humans, but still possess a desire for those relationships, they seek connections with anthropomorphized objects. This excessive need for companionship leads to cases of extreme anthropomorphization. Effectance rather is “the basic motivation to be a competent social agent. Lacking certainty, predictability, or control leads people to seek a sense of mastery and understanding over their environments…. Increasing effectance motivation, either in incentivizing people to attain predictability or in experimentally increasing a sense of unpredictability, therefore also increases people’s tendency to anthropomorphize robots, gadgets, and nonhuman animals.” (Waytz et al).
Dehumanization, as Waytz describes it, is the inverse of anthropomorphization and is what allows individuals to commit violence against other humans who are dissimilar to them. They may view the other person as a part of a lower social class, or view themselves as a social outcast and target the socially accepted. In contrast to anthropomorphization, dehumanization takes human qualities away from only a slightly dissimilar being rather than assigning them to a vastly different being. (Waytz et al.) This illustrates the fundamental difference between the anthropomorphic traits of individuals with anxiety and depression and individuals with behavioral problems that pose a legitimate threat to others’ safety. In the case of anxiety and depression disorders, the individual lacks social stimulation and seeks it in the form of an overabundance of anthropomorphization. In the case of a person who is likely to act out violently, they view themselves an outcast to society, very different from those they attack. By dehumanizing their victims, they can commit horrendous acts of violence. When met with the opportunity to anthropomorphize, such as aforementioned videos of socially charged geometric shapes, they will not recognize it or anthropomorphize, much unlike an individual with anxiety or depression.
Improper development of social skills can have especially devastating consequences in school settings. As illustrated by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) in Social Skills: Promoting Positive Behavior, Academic Success, and School Safety, students lacking social skills are prone to experience difficulties forming relationships, receive negative responses leading to peer rejection (which in turn leads to higher levels of violence), exhibit depression, anxiety, and aggression, have poor academic performance, and higher likelihood of criminal acts in adulthood. (NASP) The connection between peer rejection and violence further exhibits the point made by Waytz, that social outcasts may target the cliques or individuals they see as responsible for their rejection and ultimate situation.