Fuzzy people: The roles of kinship, essence, and sociability in the attribution of personhood to nonliving, nonhuman agents

Kathryn Johnson, Adam Cohen, Rebecca Neel, Anna Berlin, Donald Homa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

4 Scopus citations


Evolutionary theories of religion have focused almost exclusively on anthropomorphic representations of God and of God as having a mind. However, religious beliefs extend to notions about material entities as well and, we propose, religious cognition can involve many distinct cognitive systems and social motivations including kin care, essentialist beliefs, and social exchange. We refer to the elevation of the social status of nonliving and nonhuman material entities as personification. In 3 studies we assess variability in the personification of a range of nonliving nonhuman entities. In Study 1, perceived kinship and the attribution of an inner essence, spirit, or soul to a particular target were important positive predictors of the personification of material nonliving or nonhuman entities whereas sociability was not. In Study 2, we compare personification among European Americans, Hispanic Americans, and American Indians to show that these perceptions can vary by cultural group. In Study 3, variation in personification was related to individual differences in beliefs about the soul or evolution. In all, we show the importance of perceived kinship bonds and essentialist beliefs in the personification of fetuses, the dead, animals, and objects, over and above the attribution of mental attributes-a new focus for understanding religious cognition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)295-305
Number of pages11
JournalPsychology of Religion and Spirituality
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2015



  • Anthropomorphism
  • Essence
  • Personification
  • Theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Applied Psychology
  • Religious studies

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