As you may already know, my dissertation is about family interactions with live animals in informal learning settings and the links between their discourse and experience into the development of conservation dialogue. There is literature in the field of informal science education, environmental education and interpretation that pertains to this topic, and some research has been done to look at the link between these animal interactions and increased conservation awareness through empathy, however results may still fall into questionable categories.
For the first part of my literature review, I have focused on studies that relate to emotions and live animal interactions in respect to: 1) Relationships between exposure, resulting affect and educational outcomes; 2) Common emotions people feel when they have the chance to interact with live animals in general, the “cozy” vs. “scary” animals, and familiar vs. wild animals; and 3) The role of the affective component on learning.
To make a long story short, animals make us feel! Whether they are “fuzzy” and “cuddly” like kittens and bunnies, or “disgusting” and “scary” like spiders and snakes, different animals raise different feelings in us, which are tied to what we know and experience (cognition), as well as with the opportunities we have to interact with particular animals. Generally it is discussed that aesthetics is a powerful determinant of affect, how beautiful an animal or a landscape is perceived to be influences human emotions and how sensible we are to ecological factors and issues. In addition, this non-human charisma we develop for animals is also a product of different parameters that are highly contextual and culturally oriented, including considerations of spiritual significance, symbolic meaning and material value.
As you can see at this point, charisma and empathy building (which may lead to more ecological and conservation awareness) is far too complex to measure. With that in mind, I am looking at my research in a way that is not about measuring increased conservation awareness in families, instead it is about the potential for that reflected in their discourse. To give more solid substance to those observations and discussions of empathy and conservation, the second part of my literature review discusses studies outside the free-choice learning field (in general) and measures of learning. I am looking at papers in the field of psychology research that can be relevant to the argument of emotional and/or biological predispositions towards animals, which I hope will build on the argument of value development, specifically conservation value.
In sum, whether there is debate about the nature of conservation value building arguments and the validity of the claims from research, we do know that animals make us feel, and that feeling is associated with cognitive appraisal and bodily responses from the interaction. Therefore I believe there is a lot of room to investigate this conservation argument further by not only looking at these learner response/ evaluative studies but also laying down the psychological basis of empathy building.
If you feel like learning more on this topic send me a note and I can send you some references. Just in case you don’t have enough to read already to read 🙂