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Anthropomorphism in Children's Books Leads to Less Factual Learning About Animals

Mar 25, 2014 04:06 PM EDT

Ascribing human qualities on animals or other non-humans - known as anthropomorphism - leads to less factual learning about animals among young children who read books where the practice is common, according to new research. 

Furthermore, the study found that children's books flush with anthropomorphism also influence children's reasoning about animals in an unrealistic way.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, University of Toronto researchers report their findings on the effect of anthropomorphic books on children's knowledge of animals.

"Many books for young children present animals in fantastical and unrealistic ways, as wearing clothes, talking and engaging in human-like activities," the researchers wrote in the abstract to their study.

For their experiment, the researchers, led by Patricia Ganea, an assistant professor with the University of Toronto's Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, studied children at age 3, 4 and 5, to assess their understanding of animals.

The experiment focused specifically on assessing impact descriptions and language presented in the children's books. A bird wearing clothes and reading a book and a bird described as talking and having human intentions were the scenarios used in the study.

The first study used picture books featuring realistic drawing of a novel animal. Half of the children were presented the pictures with factual, realistic language. The other half were given an anthropomorphic description of the animal. The second study replicated the first, but used anthropomorphic illustrations of real animals.

"The results show that the language used to describe animals in books has an effect on children's tendency to attribute human-like traits to animals, and that anthropomorphic storybooks affect younger children's learning of novel facts about animals," the researchers found. "These results indicate that anthropomorphized animals in books may not only lead to less learning but also influence children's conceptual knowledge of animals."

The study results have implication for the type of books adults choose to teach children about the real world, the researchers said.

"Books that portray animals realistically lead to more learning and more accurate biological understanding," Ganea said in a statement. "We were surprised to find that even the older children in our study were sensitive to the anthropocentric portrayals of animals in the books and attributed more human characteristics to animals after being exposed to fantastical books than after being exposed to realistic books."

Original depiction of fictional anthropomorphic rabbit from the first chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Via Wilimedia Commons
Original depiction of fictional anthropomorphic rabbit from the first chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Via Wilimedia Commons

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