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From Sad Slugs to Curious Cubs: A Child's View of Animal Psychology


Story posted August 18, 2006

Can a tarantula be happy? Is an elephant proud? Do slugs dream?

It's all in whom you ask, according to Psychology Chair Suzanne Lovett.

Lovett and student researcher Rachel VanderKruik '07 have spent the summer conducting research with groups of children — from preschool through elementary school — to measure their understanding of animal psychology. Lovett also administered the study to 20 adult subjects, for comparison.

"We want to see if kids understand that the complexity of a creature's brain determines the complexity of its acts," says Lovett. "Further, we're wondering if their attribution of a mental life varies with their understanding of brains, spinal cords, nerves, and even the size of the animal. Ultimately, I'm trying to see if kids make a connection between our biology and our psychology."

Student and child
Do have or don't have? A youngster responds to one of VanderKruik's questions about animal psychology wih a decided "don't know."

In one experiment, children were shown a series of cards depicting a wide range of animals. They were asked to sort them into a "do-have" or "don't-have" pile in response to a slew of control questions. Do they see, smell or hear? Do they remember, learn, think? Do they dream or do make-believe?

"Kids have been saying very different things," grins VanderKruik, who conducted some of these tests on children at the Bowdoin Children's Center and at other local camps and schools. "All age groups have confusions about whether the tulip is alive. A few have said that a worm can fight. The shark has brought out a lot of interesting responses: A few 7–8-year-old kids talked about echolocation and some even mentioned pheromones for smelling."

And, yes, size does matter.

According to preliminary results, which Lovett is hoping to present at a meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development later this year, both child and adult participants attributed more psychological qualities to larger animals.

"It would appear that some people attribute greater intelligence to animals that can attack us."

That isn't necessarily off base. Brain size, notes Lovett, corresponds roughly to body size. "But that doesn't automatically correspond to intelligence," she adds. "Elephants have large brains, but they have large bodies, so much of their brain capacity is devoted to movement. Everyone said a human child is smartest, however, and we are not the largest animal."

The perceived temperament of animals gave Lovett and VanderKruik some of their most surprising data. Most children — and many adults — attributed more psychological aspects to animals they considered to be dangerous, such as crocodiles and sharks.

"It would appear that some people attribute greater intelligence to animals that can attack us," notes Lovett. "They might seem more clever and conniving than animals that don't. That's something that might be interesting to study further."

Vanderkruik and Lovett
VanderKruik, left, and Lovett, right, have been working together through the summer to compile data for the study.

Lovett's work adds to a growing body of knowledge about folk psychology or "theory of mind." This is our everyday, common sense understanding of human behavior. It allows us to explain and predict the behavior of ourselves or others.

"We're all psychologists," notes Lovett. "We're all trying to understand somebody else's behavior. It comes up in kids' relationships with their parents: 'Why are you doing this?' What I am trying to study is what kids know at different ages. How do they figure the world out? How do they begin understanding themselves? This a piece of that puzzle."

VanderKruik received a Surdna Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship in support of her summer research.

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