Field of Science

Children with a religious upbringing have difficulty telling fantasy from reality

There’s a long-standing debate over whether we humans are naturally predisposed to believe in the supernatural, or whether it’s learned. Well, here’s a study that shows the importance of young children’s environment in determining credulity.

The basic set-up was simple. Kathleen Corriveau (Boston University) and colleagues recruited 33 kindergarten kids in the USA (that’s 5-6 year olds). Half went to state-run schools, which are mostly religion free, while the other half went to schools run along Christian lines. The state-school kids all came from non-churchgoing families, whereas the kids from religious schools all came from churchgoing families.

Then they read them a series of stories, loosely based on magical stories from the bible, but carefully disguised. They varied these stories so that sometimes they referred to magic, sometimes not.

Just to be sure of it, sometimes they changed the story a bit so that it was unfamiliar, and not recognisably biblical. For example, here’s the variants they told of the ‘Moses parting the red Sea’ Bible story:

Familiar+Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his magic stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Familiar+No Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his magic stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+No Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

The point was to try to see what cues lead these children to decide if the story was fantasy or reality. Importantly, at no point did any of the stories mention God or divine intervention.

As you can see in the graphic, the secular kids were much less likely to say the stories were real. They could pick up on the cues in the story, and figure out that it must be fantasy.

And they could do that at aged 5-6!

It’s critical to realise that both groups of kids – religious and secular – knew the difference between fact and fantasy. Both groups could recognise real versus fictional characters.

And although this was a small group, it mirrors what they saw in an earlier study, in which religious kids (whether churchgoing or non-churchgoers attending a religious school) said religious stories were real and also were more likely to say that non-religious, fantasy stories were real.

The authors conclude that the reason the religious kids were more likely to believe that these stories were real is that they “have a broader conception of what can actually happen”.

Now, what this study doesn’t tell us whether a religious upbringing makes kids more credulous, or a secular upbringing makes them more sceptical.

But it does show that critical thinking is crucially influenced by environment, and from a very early age.


ResearchBlogging.org
Corriveau, K., Chen, E., & Harris, P. (2014). Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds Cognitive Science DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12138
Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

10 comments:

  1. Objections to conclusions:

    (1) Those stories are probably all familiar to kids raised with Bible stories. If you are taught that things that shouldn’t separate in half actually can when some folks raise their hands or sticks, the smart kids will generalize. They should have done really unfamiliar stories.

    (2) The kids are still thinking critically, they just are using a different set of what-is-possible stories.

    (3) Maybe it is healthy to have an all-things-are-possible imagination until later in life. Maybe it nurtures creativity. Heck, by these conclusions stories Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy and the virtues of our past political leaders all would cripple the “critical thinking” of our children.

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    1. I agree, partially at least, with all of these. Once you have taught kids that it's perfectly possible to wave a hand and divide some natural object, then it's just a natural extrapolation to have them believe the same can be done to mountains. But that, really, is the point of hte study.

      Likewise, I don't think this says anything about critical thinking. More that the boundaries of reality are blurred. And to your third point, maybe it's healthy, maybe it's unhealthy. I guess it depends whether you want to raise a generation of artists or scientists! Perhaps helps to explain why so few religious people take up a career in sciences.

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  2. Doesn't it seem like the "unfamiliar" versions are still reminiscent enough of the Biblical stories as to activate (unconsciously) memories of them? e.g. parting the sea vs. parting the mountain. I wonder whether this is still just a case of religious kids judging the "fantasy" stories as real because they resemble the Biblical stories they've been told are real.

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    1. The first study they did, the stories were obvious bible stories. So this was an attempt to keep the basic 'magic trick' intact (which is essential for the study to work), but to vary the specifics enough to reduce the recognition. Did they go far enough? I thought so but maybe not!

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  3. The most surprising bit to me is that secular kids were more likely to accept familiar+magic as real than familiar+no magic. Do the authors speculate why that may be?

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    1. The key word was magic. That seemed to be a flag to the religious kids that it wasn't real (because their religion teaches them that miracles are different from magic). For the secular kids, maybe enough of them have parents who like to blur the boundaries by talking about magic as if it is real (to Sabio's point 3, above)

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  4. I agree with Sabio, the use of biblical narratives as the structure for the 'unfamiliar' fictional stories is a massive confound. It is also problematic that they don't report details about how they selected the schools to compare and/or whether they controlled for other relevant sociodemographic confounds. I can already see the link in the side panel but in case you missed it Tom, you might find my (rather too long) analysis of the studies problems interesting: http://godknowswhat.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/can-religious-children-distinguish-fantasy-from-reality-yes/

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    Replies
    1. HI Chris, yes that was a great write up - and your blog is great (I must add it to my blog roll). I agree with the general thrust. This is not some a profound study that radically shifts our understanding, but rather a nice little study that shows how culture can affect perspectives at an early age.

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    2. Agreed. I think this particular study is problematic in terms of the confounds in the methodology and the wider theoretical claims made but their overall research project is worthwhile and the differences they find are clearly indicative of the importance of enculturation- I'm just not sure its evidence of the enculturation they think. And thanks for the kind words about the blog ;)

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  5. My friend Connor Wood has what I feel is a convincing rebuttal to this study's conclusions (mostly along the same lines as what Chris and Sabio mentioned above).

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2014/07/informal-study-finds-bloggers-cant-tell-fact-from-fiction/#more-1311

    A better way to study the question would have used, for example, dragons, or talking animals, or other other kinds of "magic" that one finds in the popular culture outside of Bible stories.

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