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I'm looking for the name of the logical fallacy where intent or agency is assumed when in fact there is none. It's a common fallacy in my experience, but I can't seem to find it described specifically on any site that discusses logical fallacies. It seems to be a special case of apophenia, but Wikipedia and Google turn up nothing specific to an "apophenia of intent" or any related phrase. The best I've been able to find is this rather obscure blog post that names it the "agency fallacy," but I haven't been able to find any other sites that use that phrase. Does this fallacy even have a name?

Here are a few examples:

  • A child, playing with magnets, finds that they repel when held one way and attract when held another way. Seeing this, the child thinks "oh, those ends want to be together, but the other ends want to be apart." They have (unconsciously) read intent into a deterministic physical process.

  • A picnicker gets rained on and thinks "Darn it, rain! You just couldn't resist ruining a nice day, could you?" Again, they have (unconsciously) attributed agency to a mindless natural process.

  • Two people pass each other in a crowded hall. One trips and stumbles into the other. The other thinks "What a jerk! Why'd they do that to me?" They have mistakenly attributed intent (specifically, malice) to an action that was accidental. This is the case of the fallacy that Hanlon's Razor warns against.

  • A socialist on a soapbox shouts "Capitalism is the source of all the world's evil! It's stealing our jobs and lining the pockets of bureaucrats!" Although the use of metaphor is more deliberate here than with the child or the picnicker, it is still misleading: capitalism can't do anything on its own, only the people who participate in it can.

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    Are you referring to correlation-implies-causation fallacy (or Post hoc ergo propter hoc)?
    – seismatica
    Aug 4, 2014 at 22:25
  • ... Very fast. Have you too high a reputation already? Aug 4, 2014 at 22:28
  • @seismatica No, because a correlation that really does represent causation can still be this fallacy if the cause was due to natural forces, but deliberate "intent" is read into it.
    – Malcolm
    Aug 4, 2014 at 22:41
  • @seismatica A (simplistic) example might be watching magnets repel each other and thinking that the magnets are "trying to avoid each other," when in reality it is just basic physical forces at work. I suppose you could still argue that's Post hoc ergo propter hoc, but it's such a common specific case I was sure it would have its own name.
    – Malcolm
    Aug 4, 2014 at 22:45
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    I'd guess pathetic fallacy, or anthropomorphic fallacy, might fit the bill?
    – Amadan
    Aug 4, 2014 at 22:49

4 Answers 4

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To propose it formally then: Pathetic fallacy, the "the attributing of human emotion and conduct to all aspects within nature. It is a kind of personification that is found in poetic writing when, for example, clouds seem sullen, when leaves dance, when dogs laugh, or when rocks seem indifferent."

Also somewhat strangely referred to as "anthropomorphic fallacy" (which is not a fallacy shaped like a human as one might expect), as it comes about from anthropomorphism (personification), i.e. attributing human features to non-human entities, which is commonly done spontaneously as basis of most mythologies, and intentionally as a literary device.

Also note that, unlike the standard literary definition found in most sources as well as the Wikipedia quote above, I personally would not call "magnets are trying to avoid each other" a fallacy in most cases, but rather a colorful and memorable description of the phenomenon, and either of the neutral terms "personification" or "anthropomorphism" would fit the situation much better. It only becomes a fallacy when one uses the attributed emotion specifically as a premise for (faulty) logical reasoning. ("magnets are trying to avoid each other? so if we ask them very nicely they might stop?")

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The fallacy is called the agency fallacy.

I first came across the agency fallacy in a series of audio lectures on evolutionary psychology by Allen MacNeill ('Evolutionary psychology' from 'The Great Courses' audio series available for download on Audible). I'm pretty sure Ben Shermer references it in his book 'Why people believe weird things' too.

As an aside, The blog you linked to was my own.

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  • haha this is pretty cool.
    – seismatica
    Aug 5, 2014 at 21:34
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As others have rightly pointed out, this isn't strictly a fallacy unless used as the premise for an argument--typically, it's more like a bias. Searching Google for "agency bias" yields much better results, including multiple academic articles such as this one. "Agency bias" or "bias toward agency" appears to be the accepted term.

Perhaps in cases where this bias is used in an argument (such as with the example of the socialist on a soapbox), it might informally be called the agency bias fallacy, or simply the agency fallacy.

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Perhaps you could try furtive fallacy (Wikipedia), whose meaning is much more restricted compared to what you're describing.

The furtive fallacy is an informal fallacy of emphasis in which outcomes are asserted to have been caused by the malfeasance of decision makers

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  • You must cite the source of quotations in plain text. A link is always good, but the word "Wikipedia" must appear.
    – Andrew Leach
    Aug 5, 2014 at 6:31
  • (Note that there are those of us who vehemently disagree with what Andrew said.)
    – Marthaª
    Aug 5, 2014 at 18:38

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