The Believability of Anthropomorphic Explanations of Natural Phenomena

Abstract

Anthropomorphic explanations can be observed in formal academic settings as well as everyday discussions. The fact that people endow human characteristics to inanimate phenomena has been observed in a wide variety of disciplines. Unfortunately, the theoretical interest in this phenomenon has not translated into an extensive empirical literature. Those studies that have been conducted (e.g., Tamir & Zohar, 1991; Zohar & Ginossar, 1998) have focused on young adults, contrasting anthropomorphic explanations with teleological ones. The goal of our research was to contrast the strength of belief in anthropomorphic explanations with mechanistic ones. In our study, participants were presented with descriptions of phenomena, the explanation of which would either contain anthropomorphic or simple mechanistic explanations. The nature of the actors in these scenarios was also varied from abstract (e.g., X moves Y) to concrete (e.g, a Boft moves a Yomi). Finally, the validity of the explanation in relation to the description was also manipulated. The outcome of this experiment indicated that the use of anthropomorphic and mechanistic explanations affect peoples’ belief in an explanation. We discuss these findings in terms of the belief-bias effect and the efficacy of such explanations in science education.


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