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Symbolic animals and the developing self

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This study examined developmental changes in animal symbols of the self, as revealed by identification with six animals (lion, eagle, bear, rabbit, lamb and cow) by children aged from 4 to 5 years (n=10), 10 to11 years (n=9), and 17 to 18 years (n=10). Overall, the eagle, rabbit and lion received positive identification scores, and the bear, lamb and cow received negative scores. Differences by age showed increases for the lion, eagle and bear, and decreases for the other three. Overall, boys positively identified with the lion and eagle, and rejected the rabbit, lamb and cow. Girls' average scores were positive only for the rabbit. Consideration of animal results by age and gender revealed important patterns, such as a middle age group gender split on rabbit identification. The data support two theories that explain motivations to identify or to dis-identify with symbolic animals. One theory holds that animals may pose a threat to society's symbolic regulation of behavior. This threat must be reduced by categorically distinguishing humans from animals. This theory was not supported in a strong or general form, but was supported in a weaker version that holds that specific animals are appropriated to symbolize individuals' role-specific social selves. The second theory holds that exploitation of animals generates a need for psychological defenses that shield the self from moral approbation or guilt. Thus, exploited animals cannot serve as symbols of the self and must be rigidly repudiated. This theory was supported also, but with data from a different sub-set of the animals. Both theories further articulate a social-developmental theory of how language, and symbolism influence human relations to animals, and help explain the origins of attitudes such as anthropocentrism. Implications for humane education are discussed.


Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/089279302786992766

Publication date: March 1, 2002

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