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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Animal Minds in the Media: Learning outcomes for a critical-analysis assignment for students of comparative psychology


Students of comparative cognition must learn to read and evaluate scholarly writings such as journal articles and textbooks, and to think critically about information they hear from talks and lectures from experts in the field. They also must develop a healthy skepticism for popular-media portrayals of the mental and behavioral competencies of animals, whether those appear in serious formats such as documentaries and non-refereed popular science magazines or blogs, or even in media portrayals of animals that are intended purely for entertainment. Across a ten-year period, students in either a senior psychology course or a freshman honors seminar completed multiple assignments each semester called “Animal Minds in the Media” requiring identification and evaluation of popular media portrayals of the cognitive capabilities of animals, viewed through the lens of the comparative-psychology literature. The assignment was designed to motivate students to cultivate scientific skepticism and develop a “comparative psychologist’s way of seeing the world” by identifying implications or assumptions of popular-media treatment of animals and by bringing scientific literature to bear on the question of whether animals can actually think in the way implied by the commercial, comic, film, meme, or other media example.

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