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Anthropomorphized Animals Fail to Teach Altruism

Kids relate better to stories with human characters.
Care Bears.

Care Bears.

In this time of increased hate and intolerance, many parents are no doubt eager to teach their children to become generous, caring human beings. So they share with them stories about altruistic behavior, usually featuring talking animals or other fantastic creatures.

Newly published research reports such tales, however adorable, are surprisingly ineffective.

"Contrary to the common belief, realistic stories, not anthropomorphic ones, are better for promoting young children's pro-social behavior," reports a research team led by Patricia Ganea of the University of Toronto.

She notes that, in this first-of-its-kind study, four to six-year-olds "were more likely to act on the moral of a story when it featured human behavior."

Turns out those tykes are more literal than we realized.

The study, published in the journal Developmental Science, featured 96 children, who began by "choosing 10 stickers to take home for agreeing to participate." They were also told that another child of their own gender was not chosen and thus would not get any stickers. If they wished, they could share some of theirs by placing them in an envelope.

Turns out those tykes are more literal than we realized.

They were then randomly assigned to read one of three books. One-third read Little Raccoon Learns to Share by Mary Packard, which uses anthropomorphic animals to express the idea that "sharing makes you feel good." Another third read an identical story, except the illustrations of the animal characters were replaced with images of humans. The final third read a book about seeds that did not address the concept of sharing.

After answering questions about their view of the characters, they chose another 10 stickers as a thank-you gift, and were again given the opportunity to donate one or more to another child.

"After hearing the story containing real human characters, young children became more generous," the researchers report. "In contrast, after hearing the same story but with anthropomorphized animals, children became more selfish."

The researchers—Nicole Larsen, Kang Lee, and Ganea—are quick to note that generosity also declined in the group that read about seeds. In both cases, this seems to reflect a reluctance to give a second time. The animal-centric story didn't induce selfishness, but it didn't block it either.

Further analysis revealed that "children who could relate these characters to humans and human behaviors were able to act according to the moral of the story." But perhaps surprisingly, "children overall attributed animal characteristics to anthropomorphized characters far more often than they attributed human characteristics to the same characters."

So the fanciful creatures caught their attention, but they didn't truly relate to them, and thus didn't emulate their behavior. That may change if parents who read the story to or with the child point out the parallels; future research will explore that possibility.

For now, however, these results have a clear moral: "For children at a very young age, fantastical stories may not be as effective for teaching real-world knowledge, or real-life social behaviors, as realistic ones."

They're cute and all, but it's unlikely the Care Bears create much caring.