Unlocking the Power of Anthropomorphism: How Products with Human-Like Traits Could Shape Your Next Purchase

A recent study suggests that some consumer products infused with human-like qualities could become a reality as companies explore the untapped potential of leveraging innate psychology as a marketing strategy. 

By harnessing the power of anthropomorphism—the attribution of human traits to nonhuman objects—companies could wield newfound influence over consumer perceptions and purchasing decisions.

“Companies have long used cartoon-like characters to sell products. We are familiar with the ‘M&M spokes-candies,’ for example,” Dr. Alan Dennis, professor of information systems at Indiana University and study co-author, explained. “But adding human features to a product can be a powerful way to influence consumers’ perceptions and decision making because it can trigger anthropomorphism.”

Dr. Dennis and co-author Lingyao (Ivy) Yuan, a professor of information systems at Iowa State University, believe the concept of products selling themselves could be on the horizon in today’s digitally-driven age. 

Thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence and visual design technologies, researchers say that the integration of human-like attributes into consumer goods could be the next frontier in retail innovation rather than an idea confined to the realms of science fiction. 

According to researchers, the reason your next significant purchase might be a computer boasting human-like traits lies in the profound influence of anthropomorphism on consumer behavior.

Anthropomorphism, the innate tendency to attribute human characteristics to nonhuman entities, is a deeply rooted psychological phenomenon. Its presence can be traced back through human history, evident in artifacts such as the “Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel,” showcasing humans engaging in anthropomorphism dating back as far as 40,000 years ago.

This natural desire to personify nonhuman objects has also long intrigued scientists and marketers for its potential to sway consumer perceptions. The concept is evident in some of the most iconic product marketing campaigns. 

However, unlike Geico’s Gecko or Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal mascot, Tony the Tiger, which serve as spokespersons rather than representations of actual products, researchers believe that anthropomorphism is more likely to be triggered whenever an underlying product possesses human-like features.

“When we hear or see an inanimate object that has human features, our brain automatically ascribes human form to it even though we rationally know the object is not human,” Dr. Dennis explained. “Anthropomorphism changes how we think and behave toward an object, making us like it more.” 

To put their theory to the test, Dr. Dennis and Yuan conducted a study involving undergraduate students tasked with purchasing essential items: a laptop, a camera, and a television. The products were presented in a two-minute sales video, with participants being told to bid on them in an eBay-style auction.  

In the videos, researchers incorporated realistic CGI to make products appear to have human physical traits and conversational abilities. An item would speak to participants in the first person, describing its features and functionalities in a relatable manner. 

To understand the cognitive processes at play, researchers used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to observe participant’s neurological responses as they received information about products.

Results showed that participants were willing to bid about 20% higher for the laptop when presented in its anthropomorphic form, compared to more conventional presentation methods, such as a static web page or image slideshow. However, this impact varied depending on the complexity of the product being featured. 

While the laptop elicited a strong response, the human-like features on the “less complex” items, namely the television and camera, did not affect the amount participants were willing to bid. 

EEG data revealed distinct patterns of brain activity, showing heightened cognitive engagement when products possessed human-like features. Specifically, participants exhibited increased activity in the parietal lobe, a brain region crucial to understanding external stimuli. 

Mirroring how respondents bid on items, EEG data also revealed that with the television and camera, participants intentionally suppressed the “cartoon agent” as being irrelevant. 

Ultimately, the findings showed that complex products, such as computers or cell phones, benefit from having tailored anthropomorphic features that match the nature of the product. However, adding human-like attributes on simpler items, like a television or camera, elicits a differing response. 

One interpretation of these findings suggests that anthropomorphism is more likely to occur when human-like features are perceived as believable. For instance, drawing on examples such as digital voice assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa or recent advances in artificial intelligence can enhance the credibility of an interactive computer. 

Conversely, a talking television or camera may seem far more unfamiliar and less conducive to triggering anthropomorphic tendencies.

The implications of this research could be profound for businesses seeking to leverage technology to enhance consumer engagement and drive sales. By integrating human-like qualities into product design, companies could tap into the innate tendencies of anthropomorphism. 

However, as Dr. Dennis points out, there is a limit to what kinds of human-like products people are willing to accept. 

“Our research shows that there are important boundary conditions in the effects of displaying products in an anthropomorphic form,” Dr. Dennis said. “Our results show that anthropomorphic displays lead to different cognition and different willingness to pay for more complex products, but not less complex products … Our results suggest that adding a face, movement and human speech are useful in designing the display of more complex products.”

Tim McMillan is a retired law enforcement executive, investigative reporter and co-founder of The Debrief. His writing typically focuses on defense, national security, the Intelligence Community and topics related to psychology. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @LtTimMcMillan.  Tim can be reached by email: or through encrypted email: