I named my first running watch “Clarence,” as in Clarence Odbody, angel second class, of It’s a Wonderful Life fame. I figured the device, a green Garmin Forerunner 10, would help me find my wings while running the marshy trails of my southern New Jersey home.
Psychologists have a word for this habit of naming or assigning human traits to objects and nonhuman creatures: anthropomorphism. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’re likely acquainted with the concept—70 percent of us name our cars, and 36 percent of us cop to thinking of them as friends. (Guilty. I can’t part with my sputtery 2008 Subaru Outback—aka “Suby”—despite the 275,000 miles on her odometer and surf wax stains on her interior.)
We also commonly humanize animals, like the Galapagos tortoise who “broke up” with her tortoise partner of 100 years because she needed to firmly established her boundaries, and robots: the death of NASA’s Opportunity Rover made Twitter ugly cry.
Animals, robots, and even cars all move in human-like ways, and they all have faces or face-like configurations, something scientifically proven to increase anthropomorphic tendencies. But humanizing a running watch—or any piece of outdoor gear—is a bit more confounding. And yet plenty of us engage in this weird phenomenon. There are message boards and entire Reddit threads dedicated solely to the naming of fishing rods, bicycles, snowboards, hiking sticks, and (phew, I’m not alone) running watches. Even legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett affectionately referred to his bear rifle as “Ol’ Betsy.”
The practice could come down to loneliness. Research shows that people who lack fulfilling human relationships are more likely to anthropomorphize their stuff. This may hold true even as we head outdoors specifically to disconnect or commune with nature. But don’t go beefing up your Tinder page just yet. “Being human, we know a great deal about human behavior,” says Spencer Gerrol, cognitive psychologist, CEO of neuroanalytics/advertising research company SPARK Neuro, and a guy who says “please” when making a request of his Amazon Echo. “So we want to put things in this context we understand. The habit comes partly from wanting to explain the behavior of other things.”
In other words, we humanize our gear when we need to make sense of it. Consider Greg Senn, a New Mexico–based scuba instructor who says he treats his 30-year-old regulators and buoyancy device like “old friends.” When he finds himself speaking with his equipment, it’s typically because he’s trying to figure out what has gone wrong.
“I had problems with my dive computer while in Bonair, just north of Venezuela,” Senn says. “It was telling me my nitrox mix was wrong, and I knew it was lying. It took me five days to figure it out. Turns out I had a setting wrong—a simple mistake on my part. But talking to the computer helped me get to the bottom of it.”
In other cases, we anthropomorphize gear because we’re looking for a sentient, competent teammate who will help us pull through when things get hairy. Melissa Norberg, head of the Behavioural Science Laboratory at Australia’s Macquarie University, points to one study that suggests we humanize belongings when we’re feeling uncertain about our environment. “Someone might anthropomorphize a kayak or surfboard when navigating potentially dangerous waters,” she says.
Or, for Tanja Rosendorfsky, dangerous climbs. The 28-year-old mountaineer has summited peaks in Switzerland, New Zealand, Bolivia, Peru, and Patagonia. In each location, she has spoken to her equipment when she felt outside her comfort zone. “When I climb in snow and ice, I am talking to my ice axes,” Rosendorfsky says in an email. “I imagine them as friends who bite themselves into the ice to help me get up, and that calms my mind, which helps me to make safer, more solid placements. I say my ice axes and crampons are my best friends. They help me get up that mountain and feel what I feel up there.”
But it’s not just scary situations that prompt this feeling of camaraderie with our gear; it’s also the celebratory moments. Without human teammates to high-five, we’re sometimes inclined to invent our own. Jimmy Valm, a surfer in New Jersey, told me he has names for all his surfboards. “I talk to them constantly in the water: ‘That was a great ride. Nicely done, Nesta.’”
Of course, anthropomorphizing isn’t all warm and fuzzy. Humanizing gear also renders it more worthy of “moral care” in our minds, meaning we’re pained when it inevitably gets dinged or scratched, “even if those dings and scratches don’t really affect utility,” says Gerrol, the cognitive psychologist. The habit also means we’re more likely to hang on to old gear longer than is practical, which can translate to cluttered sheds and garages.
Humanized gear gives us a window into ourselves. Because we’re more likely to anthropomorphize the things we value or the things that speak to our sense of identity, reflecting on what we’ve humanized can help us determine the pursuits that most light our fire, so to speak. And when we’re overcome with gratitude for having discovered such a passion, humanized gear gives us an outlet for that appreciation.
Kayaker Susan Servos-Sept, based in Half Moon Bay, north of Vancouver, has a 16-foot touring kayak named Daisy that she describes as “fun, cute, and gentle, but a lion when she needs to be.” Servos-Sept frequently takes Daisy into the beautiful waters of God’s Pocket Marine Park, home to many orca whales and a seabird breeding colony.
“Even though I have lots of friends and great family, it’s just an amazing calmness and quality of life this inanimate object gives me,” says Servos-Sept, adding she will pat—or even kiss—Daisy when walking by. “And that feeling, I think, radiates to other people, and it helps them develop that same happiness and joy of sport. It’s all quirky and weird, but it’s also just fun.”
If nothing else, humanized gear gives us an out. A compilation of six studies found that anthropomorphism weakens self-control and makes us more likely to cave to temptation. So the next time you find yourself calling in “sick” to work or bailing on a baby shower because the waves are up or the fish are running, know you’re not entirely accountable. You’ve got friends—er, gear—who can share the blame.
Of course, it’s possible none of these explanations apply to you. In that case, there’s one other rationale that will account for the inside jokes or long conversations you have with your favorite camping tent or carabiner, and it just might be the simplest one: “This habit is innate,” Gerrol says. “You're just being human.”