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The Animals in Moral Tales: The Influence of Character Realism and Narrative Theme on Young Children’s Prosocial Behaviour and Story Recall.

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2023
Number of pages231
Awarding Institution
Thesis sponsors
  • The Leverhulme Trust
Award date28/09/2023
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The aim of this thesis was to examine the role of story character realism (anthropomorphised animal versus human) and narrative theme (prosocial versus non-prosocial) on 3- to 7-year-old children’s prosocial behaviour, and indices of memory and understanding of stories using a retell paradigm. A small body of previous research suggests that anthropomorphised content negatively influences children’s responses to otherwise identical narratives. Anthropomorphic characters, relative to human protagonists, have been associated with poorer plot recall and reduced understanding of character reasoning (Kotaman & Balcı, 2017), lower rates of solution transfer from stories to real-world tasks (Richert et al., 2009), and lack of facilitation of prosocial behaviour (Larsen et al., 2017). Prosocial theme may cue children’s perspective taking (Cingel & Krcmar, 2019) and moral stories may offer particularly salient context for human interaction, as ethical choices are a predominantly human, rather than animal, trait. Chapter 1 provides an introduction and thesis rationale. Chapter 2 presents an overview of literature relevant to the experimental work, which is reported in chapters 3 to 6, as a series of journal articles.

Chapter 3 outlines the development of an Anthropomorphic Picture Scale to capture children’s ratings of thought, feeling, self-knowledge, and intention for humans, real animals, and anthropomorphised animal characters. Ratings were similar for real and anthropomorphised animals, which were significantly lower than those for humans. Children’s individual differences in internal state attribution for humans and anthropomorphised animals was explored in relation to prosocial responses to stories in Chapter 4, and to the use of internal state terms in retells of stories in Chapter 6.

Chapter 4 examined the relationship between story character realism, prosocial theme, age, and prosocial behaviour (sticker sharing task). In contrast to previous research, a prosocial themed narrative depicting human characters was no more influential on children’s subsequent prosocial behaviour than the other stories. However, children who had made higher human internal state attributions donated more stickers post-story.

Chapters 5 and 6 investigated the influences of character realism and moral theme on retells of stories. Chapter 5 examined retell length, syntactic complexity, and centrality as indices of memory and understanding of the original story. No significant influence of story character was found. However, retells of narratives with a prosocial theme had higher syntactic complexity and greater centrality than retells of the non-prosocial themed story. Chapter 6 examined retells for character internal states and dialogue. Children who retold a prosocial story with human protagonists included significantly more socio-relational language than those retelling the same story featuring animals.

A critical reflection on the implications of the experimental findings is provided in Chapter 7, along with suggestions for future work in the field.