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Why is talking to yourself mad but talking to your computer normal?

Updated: Mar 7, 2020

The most powerful technique we have for predicting what other objects will do is the invention of minds. We endow those things with beliefs, desires, knowledge and emotions, and use the model we so build to predict what they will do next.

This technique was created for predicting what other people will do, but as it is so much more sophisticated than anything else our brains do we use it even for non-humans.

A friend of mine has an old mini. When it’s cold it sometimes stalls, so she lets it rev a little in the garage before she drives it. ‘Are the old bones warmer now?’ she asks. ‘Shall we go?’ As it tries to accelerate on the slip road she whispers to it, ‘Come on, old girl, we can do it. That’s right.’ I feel quite left out of the conversation.

As I try to work out how best to write this paragraph my virus checker pops up in the corner to tell me it’s doing its job. I ask it why it has to behave like a child, constantly reminding me of its existence while I’m trying to concentrate. When the machine freezes on me, I swear at it and tell it to behave. I have some sort of dysfunctional relationship with my computer, and I’m sure it’s out to get me.

Scientists have found that one of the main predictors of our inferring minds in things is a lack of control over them. For example, when ball bearings jump about in a magnetic field and we have the switch for the magnets, we don’t personify them. But when the experimenters hid the switch, participants started describing the ball bearings as fighting, kissing or not wanting to stay still. They gave the ball bearings goals, and to have a goal you have to have a mind.

We only need to predict the behaviour of things we don’t control. So people with new Porsches don’t generally talk to their cars, and if my computer worked as I wish it would, I wouldn’t talk to it.

Dr Chris Paley is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages.

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