An Ethological Look into Elmo’s World

Elmo brightens up the faces of little ones while evoking memories of nails on a chalkboard in their parents…but his popularity and notoriety could have been predicted by ethologists years before the creation of this furry red monster. Elmo is red, which is a valued color in many species. Further, he has a high-pitched voice and loves repetition – both things that youngsters prize, and from which adults flee.

Elmo is red. Elmo could have been orange or yellow, but instead he is not just any shade of red, but the most vibrant, almost irritating form of red you could imagine. The first shades that aid in visual discrimination for infants are black, white, and red (Murkoff, Mazel, Eisenberg & Hathaway, 2003). Red allows infants to distinguish borders between objects and patterns. Further, in the wild, red is a signal of mate quality displayed by males for females (for example, see Wolfenbarger, 1999). The color signals dominance, which holds even in humans – in competitive sports, there is a higher probability of winning if you are wearing red in your uniform (Hill & Barton, 2005). Elmo’s fur is a dominant color, and by no coincidence, looked up to by his adoring fans.

Elmo’s voice is a special tone of high-pitch – and also displays extreme variations in pitch contours, and is rather slow. His voice is similar to the voice young children hear from all of the important adults in their lives – parentese! Parentese is the baby-talk used by caregivers to get and direct the attention of infants and young children, and also has benefits for language development (e.g. Fernald, 1992; Snow, 1994, respectively). Kids are used to hearing this type of speech at home, and likewise marvel when they hear it from their favorite red monster. Adults, on the other hand, do not typically employ this type of speech with each other (except in romantic relationships – stay tuned for a forthcoming blog on that topic). In fact, when we do hear an adult use this type of speech with another adult – such as in a nursing home – it is likely to sound just as grating to us as does Elmo’s voice.

Finally, the storyline of Elmo’s World is a repetitive narrative about things that kids like. He doesn’t just introduce dogs; he introduces them using his friends Mr. Noodle and Dorothy the Fish; kids; television; two interactive features; and the dog itself. This format doesn’t change, though the topic does. Infants and young children have two ways in which to learn about their environments – by repetition and exploration. The former explains why we have to read “Goodnight Gorilla” to our kids 1,000 times in a row, or let our kids continuously play with the buttons on the dryer. Elmo’s World helps kids learn about new topics by repeating them. Adults have other methods of learning, including problem solving and a wealth of learned information that enables us to retain new information more easily. So for adults, the repetitive method is boring, and potentially frustrating.

Many parents issue complaints about Elmo, feeling as though he has ruined Jim Henson’s Muppets. Being a die-hard Miss Piggy fan, I find myself often in agreement. But how many parents of yester-generation would load the 1-year-old into the car, cranking children’s music while heading off to the enriching “Little Tumblers” class? Today’s children face a world in which they are boss of their entertainment in a way never before. Rather than acclimating children to our world, we choose to create a whole new world just for them. And in that new world, Elmo is the mascot and king.

References:

Fernald, A. (1992b). Human maternal vocalizations to infants as biologically relevant signals: An evolutionary perspective. In L. Cosmides, J.H. Barkow, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 391-428). New York: Oxford University Press.

Hill, R. A. and Barton, R. A. (2005). Red enhances human performance in contests: Signals biologically attributed to red coloration in males may operate in the arena of combat sports. Nature, 435, 293.

Murkoff, H., Mazel, S., Eisenberg, A. and Hathaway, S. (2003). What to expect the first year. New York: Workman Publishing.

Snow, C. E. (1994). Beginning from baby-talk: Twenty years of research on input and interaction. In C. Gallaway and B. J. Richards (Eds.), Input and interaction in language acquisition (pp. 3-12). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wolfenbarger, L. L. (1999). Red coloration of male northern cardinals correlates with mate quality and territory quality. Behavioral Ecology, 10(1), 80-90.

Rosemarie Sokol Chang

About Rosemarie Sokol Chang

Rosemarie Sokol Chang is an evolutionist trained as a psychological scientist. She is the editor of EvoS: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium; the creator of the EvoS Consortium website and the EvoS Blogs; and co-founder of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. She also has been involved in the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society since its inception. She recently edited and contributed to the book Relating to Environments: A New Look at Umwelt. Evolution Matters is a recurring blog focused on concepts and evidence of evolution by natural selection.
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5 Responses to An Ethological Look into Elmo’s World

  1. Pingback: Parentese, Elmo and other baby talk « Mum-Mum's the Word

  2. Rose Chang says:

    Great point about his neotenous features! He is supposed to be a toddler, so I guess he should have them. I wonder though, shouldn’t that appeal more to the adults than the children? Doesn’t seem to help, he has a large parent anti-fan base :) Or maybe I should take a poll on that.

  3. Field Notes says:

    Nicely done. I hadn’t thought about the significance of Elmo being red. I am a little surprised you didn’t bring up Elmo’s neotenous features! The original Tickle Me Elmo has a huge head to body size ratio and enormous eyes. That’s also a big part of his appeal.

  4. Rose Chang says:

    Elmo does NEEPS – I like it! A special appearance even?

  5. Glenn Geher Glenn Geher says:

    Rose – I like this so much, I posted it on my Facebook wall – it’s hysterical and insightful at the same time. To this day, Megan and Andrew still have a special fondness for this particular muppet. Hey – are you thinking what I’m thinking: special NEEPS symposium on Elmo’s world??? Could work …

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