Does It Bite? The Role of Stimuli Characteristics on Preschoolers' Interactions with Robots, Insects and a Dog

Lorraine Howard, Sarah-Jane Vick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


While there is increasing interest in the impact of animal interactions upon children's wellbeing and attitudes, there has been less attention paid to the specific characteristics of the animals that attract and engage children. We used a within-subjects design to explore how differences in animal features (such as their animacy, size, and texture) impacted upon pre-school children's social and emotional responses. This study examined pre-schoolers' interactions with two animal-like robots (Teksta and Scoozie), two insect types (stick insects and hissing cockroaches) and a dog (Teasel, a West Highland Terrier). Nineteen preschool participants aged 35–57 months were videoed while interacting with the experimenter, a peer, and each stimulus (presented individually). We used both verbal and nonverbal behaviors to evaluate interactions and emotional responses to the stimuli and found that these two measures could be incongruent, highlighting the need for systematic approaches to evaluating children's interactions with animals. We categorized the content of children's dialogues in relation to psychological and biological attributes of each stimulus and their distinctions between living and non-living stimuli; the majority of comments were biological, with psychological terms largely reserved for the dog and mammal-like robot only. Comments relating to living qualities revealed ambiguity towards attributes that denote differences between living and non-living creatures. We used a range of nonverbal measures, including willingness to approach and touch stimuli, rates of self-touching, facial expressions of emotion, and touch to others. Insects (hissing cockroaches and stick insects) received the most negative verbal and nonverbal responses. The mammal-like robot (rounded, fluffy body shape, large eyes, and sympathetic sounds) was viewed much more positively than its metallic counterpart, as was the real dog. We propose that these interactions provide information on how children perceive animals and a platform for the examination of human socio-emotional and cognitive development more generally. The children engaged in social referencing to the adult experimenter rather than familiar peers when uncertain about the stimuli presented, suggesting that caregivers have a primary role in shaping children's responses to animals.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)397-413
JournalAnthrozoös: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2010


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