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On elephants and anthropomorphism

A tweeted @NPRnews article headline caught my eye the other day. Gotchya! Elephant Caught Cheating. It was meant “to catch” me, and it was successful. As I read the story about a young female elephant who figured out how to get the result (food) that she wanted without having to do the work (the learning and collaborative system designed by the researchers), I found myself bothered by the anthropomorphism of the author.

The young female elephant who figured out how to get the food through a means other than designed by The Humans is called “a cheat.” A cheat? Did she sign an agreement with The Humans to do the experiment as They designed. Perhaps in her “cheating,” she was actually exploring physics and solutions that were different? Perhaps she was applying her intelligence in a new way because the experiment was stupid and low-level. Perhaps she was exerting her dominance with the other elephant and she had Her Reasons.

These things I don’t know. And my attempts to figure it out have me being anthropomorphic also. It’s not my job to know her reasons for going around the parameters of the experiment. I will say that I found rather off-putting The Human Journalist’s application of pejorative adjectives to the elephant.


  • Nana
    Posted September 4, 2023 at 4:40 am

    Yes. I often have this same reaction to descriptions of animal behavior. Anthropomorphising (or moralizing) is a barrier to understanding. In this case, while I couldn’t see and don’t understand the workaround described, I did notice that both elephants got the reward for cooperative behavior. (Also, I’ve seen film of elephants clearly cooperating to protect their young from predators. What understanding did this experiment add to what is known?)

    • Post Author
      Jessie Newburn
      Posted September 5, 2023 at 11:48 pm

      I don’t know much about the experiment or purpose. I found myself shocked by the judgement that an animal that got what it wanted was considered “a cheater”–as though they needed to comply with human rules.

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