Anthropomorphic Animals Make It Harder To Learn Science

"Yum, these grass and plants are delicious!" Mother cavy thinks as she eats her breakfast. "I will feed some to my baby cavies too!" she says. The baby cavies love to play in the grass! But they've gotten all dirty! "Time for your bath," Mother cavy says. Mother cavy and her babies like to spend the afternoon sunbathing. At night, Mother cavy tucks her babies in to bed in a small cave. "Mom, I'm scared!" says the baby cavy. "Don't be afraid," she says. "I'll listen for noises with my big ears and keep us safe."

Aside from the fact that few (if any) childrens' story books feature cavies, the non-domesticated versions of guinea pigs, the basic structure of the above story should be familiar to anybody who has ever read a kids' picture book. Or watched a Disney movie. Childrens' literature and movies are rife with talking mice and ducks who wear clothes (even if they're occasionally portrayed without pants) and dogs that range from, well, dogs, to dogs that might as well be people.

Stories are one of the main ways that our species understands the natural world. Giving human attributes to animals is by no means a recent phenomenon; ancient gods were often hybridized human-like animals (or animal-like humans). In the classic story illustrated above by Arthur Rackham, three bears sit at a table and eat porridge, like humans.

Given how ubiquitous these anthropomorphic animal-people are in our culture, University of Toronto psychologist Patricia A. Ganea wondered how those sorts of representations influence the way that young children think about real animals.

Young children already have a hard time distinguishing reality from fantasy, especially before they reach their fifth birthday. And while most children can distinguish reality from fantasy when it comes to visual representations of animals, that distortion can also be reflected in the content of the story itself. "Human consciousness, knowledge, abilities, purpose, and intentions are often attributed to animal characters (e.g., seals solve mysteries, cats build houses, and mice drive cars) and even to inanimate objects (e.g., lamps have faces and dance the tango, trains strive against all odds to achieve impossible goals)," Ganea writes.

Do children transfer the fantastical abilities of non-human animals in their storybooks to their real life models? If so, then those sorts of stories could seriously impede kids' ability to learn and remember true facts about real animals, or at least the distinguish fact from fiction. That would be especially true for children in urban and suburban areas, who have few opportunities to regularly interact with actual animals, at least compared to their rural counterparts. "Presenting animals to children in ways that are similar to how humans act and behave is likely to be counter-productive for learning scientifically accurate information about the biological world and to influence children's view of the biological world," she says.

To see whether her suspicions were correct, Ganea recruited 3- to 5-year-old Boston toddlers, and gave them a series of tasks. In one experiment, the kids were shown books that had realistic images of animals they weren't familiar with – cavies, oxpeckers, and handfish – but the text that accompanied the drawings were very different. Half of the children saw a version that included factual language, and half was anthromorphic. Compare the anthropomorphic story, above, to its factual counterpart, below:

When the mother cavy wakes up, she usually eats lots of grass and other plants. Then the mother cavy feeds her baby cavies. Mother cavy also licks the babies' fur to keep them clean. Mother cavy and her babies spend the rest of the day lying in the sun. At night, they sleep in a small cave. After they go to sleep, mother cavy's big ears help her hear noises around her.

After storytime, the kids were asked some questions about the animals in the books they had seen. While the children, especially the 4- and 5-year-olds, learned new facts from both types of books, they were more likely to attribute human-like characteristics to animals if they were read the anthropomorphic story than the straightforward version.

Also, interestingly, the kids were somewhat less likely to imbue real animals with human-like physical abilities ("Do cavies talk?"), but were totally willing to agree that animals had human-like complex emotions ("Can handfish feel proud?") or social preferences ("Do oxpeckers have friends?"). Setting aside the shades of grey as to whether non-human animals have analogues for things like friends, the findings suggest that for young kids, "exposure to anthropomorphized language may encourage them to attribute more human-like characteristics to other animals than exposure to factual language." That is, while they have a basic understanding about the physical differences between humans and animals, they are less clear about the psychological differences.

Anthropomorphic Animals Make It Harder To Learn Science

Realistic and anthropomorphic illustrations of cavies (top) and oxpeckers (bottom).

A follow-up experiment, with 3- to 5-year-olds from Toronto, confirmed the findings from Boston, and also revealed that fantastical illustrations alone weren't a problem for learning. In other words, combining anthropomorphic imagery with factual language didn't hurt learning, but combining unrealistic pictures with anthropomorphic language did.

Just to be sure, the researchers checked to see whether the findings could be the result of differences in socioeconomic backgrounds, or the parents' education or employment status, or ethnicity. None of those variables had any relationship with the pattern of findings from the storybook experiments.

Together, the findings show that language matters more than illustration when it comes to learning about animals' biology and psychology. Even when the stories were accompanied by realistic images, if the language was anthropomorphic, the kids transferred that false knowledge to real animals.

Anthropomorphic Animals Make It Harder To Learn Science

More importantly, it isn't just that the kids failed to learn true facts when exposed to the anthropomorphic stories; those stories actually made it harder for them to learn, teaching them falsehoods rather than facts. They were even more likely to think of animals in human-like terms after reading the books than if they had never seen the books at all!

The problem is actually more pervasive than it sounds: human adults, at least in the US, are also highly likely to imbue non-human animals with human-like emotions and motivations. It's a tricky line to navigate. Research is increasingly revealing the fundamental similarities between our species and the rest of the animal kingdom, but there are also aspects of human culture that are, indeed, unique to our species. Is it reasonable to suggest that an animal can feel something complex like pride or embarrassment? We are poised to attribute a similarly complex emotion, guilt, to dogs, but a deeper look reveals that while dogs indeed have a "guilty look," they probably do not actually realize that they've transgressed. If children are routinely exposed to these sorts of anthropomorphic representations of animals, it is no wonder that they grow up to become adults who look at non-human animals as if they are people wearing animal suits.

The problem also reveals a solution: children are learning machines, and they very easily incorporate knowledge from storybooks into their worldviews. "Books that do not present animals and their environments accurately from a biological perspective may not only lead to less learning," the researchers conclude, "but also influence children to adopt a human-centered view of the animal world." However, this presents an opportunity for parents and teachers to carefully select books that do accurately reflect the natural world, both visually and linguistically.

Which is not to say that there's no place for fantasy. The two worlds – reality and fantasy – simply need to be more clearly divided. There is room for both The Song of the Dodo and A Song of Ice and Fire in the bookcase. Maybe let's just keep them on different shelves?

Ganea P.A., Canfield C.F., Simons-Ghafari K. & Chou T. (2014). Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children's knowledge about animals, Frontiers in Psychology, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00283

Images: The three bears by Arthur Rackham (public domain); White rabbit by John Tenniel (public domain).

This post originally appeared on my Scientific American blog, The Thoughtful Animal.