Peter Rabbit and his sisters live in a hole—a hole in which they sleep in beds and drink chamomile tea. Cute, right? But such anthropomorphizing can have a surprising influence on how youngsters learn about animals.
Researchers had children aged one through five look at picture books of a large rodent called a cavy engaged in various activities. While looking at the pictures half the children heard factual narrative, like, “Mother cavy licks the babies’ fur to keep them clean.” The other half heard anthropomorphized language, like “Mother cavy tucks her babies into bed in a small cave.” Or “‘Mom, I’m scared!’ says the baby cavy.”
Those children who heard descriptions of animals behaving like humans went on to describe other real animals as having human traits. They were also less likely to attribute to a real animal a newly learned biological fact than were kids who heard realistic information. [Patricia A. Ganea et al, Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children's knowledge about animals, in Frontiers in Psychology]
The researchers say for children to appreciate animals as organisms with their own life histories and behaviors, the creatures should be presented in a biologically realistic manner. We don’t want to deny Peter Rabbit his tea. But maybe kids should also hear how a rabbit’s long ears probably help them detect predators. It’s a true story.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]