Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Psychology of Anthropomorphism. Or Not.

As regular visitors to Yellowstone National Park (we live only 2 ½ hours to the south) we see it every time we visit.

There’s a buffalo or elk on the side of the road, or in a meadow nearby. Visitors, cameras and children in hand, flock to the roadside and begin snapping pictures. The vast majority of them – children included – keep a respectful distance. But there are always one or two of those hundredth monkeys who have to get closer. And closer. And closer. It’s always the adults, sometimes with a very reluctant child in tow. I’ve never seen anyone get gored or trampled, but I have seen enough buffalo and elk look at the interlopers and stomp their hoofs, only to run off, to know there are many close calls.

And I, myself, by choice, have been within twenty feet of a Yellowstone black bear. The smartest thing I’ve done in my life?


But is anthropomorphism to blame? A study published in Psychology Today seems to intimate so. And I don’t buy it. (Of course, I'm doing what every other journalist is doing with such studies: Misinterpreting it in order to write a screed on my own agenda.)

The study looked at how children process information about animals based upon whether they’re exposed early on to fact-based information about them, or whether they’re told cute, cuddly little stories about them instead. (Big admission here: I’m currently writing a novel about anthropomorphized animals and grew up on such novels, so I have an obvious bias here.)

They’ve got some funny things to say in their study:

[T]he results of Study 1 indicate that preschoolers can learn simple biological facts about animals from books, whether the information is presented to them in a context that uses realistic or anthropomorphic language to describe animals. This ability is more robust in 4- and 5-year-olds than in 3-year-olds. This finding is consistent with the results of Ganea and colleagues regarding the learning of simple biological information (e.g., color camouflage) from picture books that varied the type of language (realistic vs. intentional) used.

The results also show that the type of language used in books affects how likely children are to attribute anthropomorphistic traits to real animals. Children were more likely to say that real animals feel human emotions or even talk after listening to stories that used anthropomorphic rather than realistic language. There are two ways to explain this effect: either that the anthropomorphic language increases children’s [sic] tendency to attribute anthropomorphic traits to animals, or that hearing realistic language suppresses their natural inclination to attribute human-like traits to other non-human animals.

So, first they say that it’s possible for children to learn “facts” about animals, whether the information is presented in realistic or anthropomorphized language. That’s fine. They also demonstrate that anthropomorphizing animals may make children more prone to attribute human characteristics to animals than if they read purely fact-based books.

Then, later in the study, they go on to say this:

When children in Study 2 were exposed to books where anthropomorphic images and language were combined they were less likely to apply the facts to photographs of the real animals compared to a book that used only anthropomorphic images. This type of book, which combines both fantastical language and anthropomorphic illustrations of animals, is typical of commercially available books. Our results suggest that this combination may create a story context that is too dissimilar from reality for preschoolers to realize that information important for the real world is being conveyed. As children get older and have more experience with fantastical stories, they may acquire knowledge that information encountered in fantastical books can’t be relevant to the real world, but the current findings indicate that this is not yet the case for preschool-aged children.

This, I suppose, would hold true if children only learned information about animals from books. Maybe that’s the case for many children, who live in situations and in cultures where real interactions with animals aren’t possible or practical. We do, after all, live in a world where many want to be or are by situation isolated from nature, where they don’t have pets, rarely frequent zoos or live in urban centers where the only animals to be seen in their natural habitat may be birds, insects, squirrels, and such.

And part of me wonders how much of the response they’re getting is just because the children are parroting what they’ve just learned, not because one set of information is more important to the real world than the other. What’s in the mind now with kids is most likely what is going to come out when you ask them questions. Thus the odd story of Jesus coming to Earth inside a meteor at a family discussion shortly after our kids saw the original Superman movie.

I grew up reading these kinds of books, and by choice. Ribsy. The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. They are what I enjoy (though I read many reality-based books these days) and what I want to write as an author.

Am I doing harm by writing such books?

No. And I don’t think the study is saying that, contrary to what Slate might be thinking about it at the moment. But I think it’s disingenuous to think that our preschoolers have to be filled with facts “relevant to the real world” and that reading them books of this nature is harmful to their learning. (Slate gets a bit silly on this as well, linking their article to that of a 12-year-old girl who “petted” a bear attacking her, neglecting in their summation to say that she petted the animal as a last-ditch attempt to stop its attack after she’d already been bitten, run away, and caught again, not because she’d read fuzzy stories in which the bears were nice and liked to be stroked.)

There is other learning that, perhaps, these folks didn’t study. I consider attributing human characteristics to animals as the first steps to developing sympathy and empathy for animals, notwithstanding the outlandish scenario I started this essay with.

This is a scary bear, right?

Are folks being gored and trampled in Yellowstone because they believe the animals they see are of the fuzzy, cute nature they’ve read in books? Maybe a portion of them are. But I think the bigger problem is that they are in the moment, wanting to get closer and closer to nature in a world where we’re so disconnected from nature that we have lost respect for it, notwithstanding the many real-world, relevant facts we may have learned from them. I can know that bears can climb trees and that they can run both downhill and uphill equally well and that they can outrun me, but in the moment those facts may be overridden by the desire to connect to nature, despite what I know.

And my children, who grew up around books that anthropomorphize, have learned a great respect for animals because we don’t rely on books to teach our kids how they should behave if they see an elk or buffalo or bear up close. We respect nature, because we know what it can do. And when I went to see that bear up the trail? My kids, who love Narnia and Warriors and other such books, stayed behind because they knew the dangers. How much more real-world do we need to get?

Besides, I want my kids to be sillyhearts, while still respecting nature:

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