Children’s Developing Understanding of the Cognitive Abilities of Supernatural and Natural Minds

Evidence from Three Cultures

Authors

  • Emily Rachel Reed Burdett University of Nottingham
  • Justin L. Barrett Fuller Theological Seminary
  • Tyler S. Greenway Fuller Theological Seminary

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.39186

Keywords:

God concepts, cultural learning, cross-cultural, social learning, omniscience, anthropomorphism

Abstract

Despite a wealth of research exploring developmental patterns of children’s understanding of the thoughts and desires of another (or, their theory of mind), relatively little research has explored children’s developing understanding of supernatural minds. Of the work that exists, very few studies have explored whether patterns are similar in other cultural contexts, or religious traditions outside of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. To address this deficit, the present study recruited 2-to-5-year-old children from three countries (United Kingdom, Albania, and Israel) with different religious traditions (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish). Children completed two perception (audio and visual) tasks and one memory task assessing their understanding of natural and supernatural minds’ cognitive abilities. Analyses revealed different patterns for responses about human minds. However, there were similar results across samples for responses about God, suggesting a shared developmental pattern. We conclude that children from religious traditions with a High God (God, Allah, Ha-Shem) share a similar developing concept of God. 

Author Biographies

Emily Rachel Reed Burdett, University of Nottingham

School of Psychology, Assistant Professor

Justin L. Barrett, Fuller Theological Seminary

School of Psychology, Thrive Professor of Developmental Science

Tyler S. Greenway, Fuller Theological Seminary

School of Psychology, Research Associate

References

Barrett, Justin L., Roxanne M. Newman, and Rebecca A. Richert. 2003. ‘When Seeing is Not Believing: Children’s Understanding of Humans’ and Nonhumans’ Use of Background Knowledge in Interpreting Visual Displays’, Journal of Cognition and Culture 3.1: 91-108. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/156853703321598590.

Barrett, Justin L., Rebecca Richert, and Amanda Driesenga. 2001. ‘God’s Beliefs Versus Mother’s: The Development of Nonhuman Agent Concepts’, Child Development 72.1: 50-65. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00265.

Bartsch, Karen, and Henry M. Wellman. 1995. Children Talk About the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Burdett, Emily R.R., and Justin L. Barrett. 2016. ‘The Circle of Life: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Children’s Attribution of Life-Cycle Traits’, British Journal of Developmental Psychology 34.2: 276-90. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/bjdp.12131.

Burdett, Emily R.R., J. Bradley Wigger, and Justin L. Barrett. 2019. ‘The Minds of Gods, Mortals, and In-Betweens: Children’s Developing Understanding of Extraordinary and Ordinary Minds Across Four Countries’, Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/rel0000285.

Callaghan, Tara, et al. 2005. ‘Synchrony in the Onset of Mental-State Reasoning: Evidence from Five Cultures’, Psychological Science 16.5: 378-84. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01544.x.

Cole, Kristina, and Peter Mitchell. 2000. ‘Siblings in the Development of Executive Control and a Theory of Mind’, British Journal of Developmental Psychology 18: 279-95. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1348/026151000165698.

Cutting, Alexandra L., and Judy Dunn. 1999. ‘Theory of Mind, Emotion Under­standing, Language, and Family Background: Individual Differences and Interrelations’, Child Development 70.4: 853-65. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00061.

Devine, Rory T., and Claire Hughes. 2018. ‘Family Correlates of False Belief Understanding in Early Childhood: A Meta-Analysis’, Child Development 89.3: 971-87. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12682.

Epley, Nicholas, Adam Waytz, and John T. Cacioppo. 2007. ‘On Seeing Human: A Three-Factor Theory of Anthropomorphism’, Psychological Review 114.4: 864-86. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.114.4.864.

Etel, Evren, and Bilge Yagmurlu. 2015. ‘Social Competence, Theory of Mind, and Executive Function in Institution-Reared Turkish Children’, International Journal of Behavioral Development 39.6: 519-29. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0165025414556095.

Farmer, H., and Ann Dowker. 1995. ‘“Baby Is Cleverer Than Daddy”: Are Young Children’s False Belief Judgements Affected by the Age of the Protagonist?’. Paper presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference, London.

Giménez-Dasí, Marta, Silvia Guerrero, and Paul L. Harris. 2005. ‘Intimations of Immortality and Omniscience in Early Childhood’, European Journal of Developmental Psychology 2.3: 284-97. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/17405620544000039.

Greenway, Tyler, Gregory S. Foley, Brianna C. Nystrom, and Justin L. Barrett. 2017. ‘Dogs, Santa Claus, and Sun Wukong: Children’s Understanding of Nonhuman Minds’, in Ryan G. Hornbeck, Justin L. Barrett, and Madeleine Kang (eds.), Religious Cognition in China: ‘Homo Religiosus’ and the Dragon (Cham: Springer): 97-109. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-62954-4_6.

Harris, Paul. 1991. ‘The Work of the Imagination’, in Andrew Whiten (ed.), Natural Theories of Mind: Evolution, Development and Simulation of Everyday Mindreading (London: Basil Blackwell): 283-304.

Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33.2-3: 61-83. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X0999152X.

Hughes, Claire, Rory T. Devine, and Zhenlin Wang. 2018. ‘Does Parental Mind-Mindedness Account for Cross-Cultural Differences in Preschoolers’ Theory of Mind?’, Child Development 89.4: 1296-310. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12746.

Kiessling, Florian, and Joseph Perner. 2014. ‘God–Mother–Baby: What Children Think They Know’, Child Development 85.4: 1601-16. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12210.

Kline, Michelle Ann, Rubeena Shamsudheen, and Tanya Broesch. 2018. ‘Variation is the Universal: Making Cultural Evolution Work in Developmental Psychology’, Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society London B Biological Sciences 373.1743: 20170059. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0059.

Knight, Nicola. 2008. ‘Yukatek May Children’s Attributions of Beliefs to Natural and Non-Natural Entities’, Journal of Cognition and Culture 8.3-4: 235-43. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/156853708X358164.

Knight, Nicola, Paulo Sousa, Justin L. Barrett, and Scott Atran. 2004. ‘Children’s Attributions of Beliefs to Humans and God: Cross-Cultural Evidence’, Cognitive Science 28.1: 117-26. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog2801_6.

Kristen, Susanne, Claudia Thoermer, Tanja Hofer, Gisa Aschersleben, and Beate Sodian. 2006. ‘Skalierung Von “Theory of Mind”-Aufgaben [Validation of the “Theory of Mind” Scale]’, Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsychologie und Pädagogische Psychologie 38.4: 186-95. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1026/0049-8637.38.4.186.

Lane, Jonathan D., Henry M. Wellman, and E. Margaret Evans. 2010. ‘Children’s Understanding of Ordinary and Extraordinary Minds’, Child Development 81: 1475-89. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01486.x.

Lane, Jonathan D., Henry M. Wellman, and E. Margaret Evans. 2012. ‘Socio-Cultural Input Facilitates Children’s Developing Understanding of Extraordinary Minds’, Child Development 83: 1007-21. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01741.x.

Lane, Jonathan D., Henry M. Wellman, and E. Margaret Evans. 2014. ‘Approaching an Understanding of Omniscience from the Preschool Years to Early Adulthood’, Developmental Psychology 50.10: 2380-92. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037715.

Legare, Cristine. 2017. ‘Cumulative Cultural Learning: Development and Diversity’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114.30: 7877-83. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1620743114.

Leslie, Alan M. 1987. ‘Pretense and Representation: The Origins of “Theory of Mind”’, Psychological Review 94.4: 412-26. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.94.4.412.

Leslie, Alan M. 1994. ‘Pretending and Believing: Issues in the Theory of TOMM’, Cognition 50.1-3: 211-38. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0277(94)90029-9.

Leslie, Alan M., Ori Friedman, and Tamsin P. German. 2004. ‘Core Mechanisms in “Theory of Mind”’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8.12: 529-33. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2004.10.001.

Lillard, Angeline. 1998. ‘Ethnopsychologies: Cultural Variations in Theories of Mind’, Psychological Bulletin 123: 3-32. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.123.1.3.

Liu, Yanchun, Yijie Wang, Rufan Luo, and Yanjie Su. 2016. ‘From the External to the Internal: Behaviour Clari?cations Facilitate Theory of Mind (ToM) Development in Chinese Children’, International Journal of Behavioural Development 40.1: 21-30. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0165025414562484.

Makris, Nicolas, and Dimitris Pnevmatikos. 2007. ‘Children’s Understanding of Human and Super-Natural Mind’, Cognitive Development 22.3: 365-75. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2006.12.003.

Moriguchi, Yusuke, Hideyuki Takahashi, Tomoko Nakamata, and Naoya Todo. 2019. ‘Mind Perception of God in Japanese Children’, International Journal of Psychology 54.4: 557-62. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/ijop.12482.

Nawaz, Sumbal, Rubina Hanif, and Charlie Lewis. 2015. ‘“Theory of Mind” Development of Pakistani Children: Do Preschoolers Acquire an Understanding of Desire, Pretence and Belief in a Universal Sequence?’, European Journal of Developmental Psychology 12.2: 177-88. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/17405629.2014.973843.

Nielsen, Mark, Daniel Haun, J. Kartner, and Cristine H. Legare. 2017. ‘The Persistent Sampling Bias in Developmental Psychology: A Call to Action’, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 162: 31-38. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2017.04.017.

Nyhof, Melanie A., and Carl N. Johnson. 2017. ‘Is God Just a Big Person? Children’s Conceptions of God across Cultures and Religious Traditions’, British Journal of Developmental Psychology 35.1: 60-75. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/bjdp.12173.

Oh, Seaungmi, and Charlie Lewis. 2008. ‘Korean Preschoolers’ Advanced Inhibitory Control and Its Relation to Other Executive Skills and Mental State Understanding’, Child Development 79: 80-99. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01112.x.

Papagjoni, Erjon. 2017. ‘The Creation of the Albanian State and Its Relationship with Religious Communities: The Sanctioning of Religious Plurality as a Condition of National Unity’, Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 6.3: 89-94. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/ajis-2017-0026.

Perner, Josef, Ted Ruffman, and Susan R. Leekam. 1994. ‘Theory of Mind is Contagious: You Catch it from Your Sibs’, Child Development 65.4: 1228-38. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/1131316.

Peterson, Candida C., and Virginia Slaughter. 2003. ‘Opening Windows into the Mind: Mothers’ Preferences for Mental State Explanations and Children’s Theory of Mind’, Cognitive Development 18: 399-429. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0885-2014(03)00041-8.

Peterson, Candida C., Henry M. Wellman, and David Liu. 2005. ‘Steps in Theory-of-Mind Development for Children with Deafness or Autism’, Child Development 76.2: 502-17. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2005.00859.x.

Richert, Rebekah A., and Justin L. Barrett. 2005. ‘Do You See What I See? Young Children’s Assumptions about God’s Perceptual Abilities’, The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 15.4: 283-95. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327582ijpr1504_2.

Richert, Rebekah A., Anondah R. Saide, Kirsten A. Lesage, and Nicolas J. Shaman. 2016. ‘The Role of Religious Context in Children’s Differentiation between God’s Mind and Human Minds’, British Journal of Developmental Psychology 35.1: 37-59. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/bjdp.12160.

Ruffman, Ted, Lance Slade, and Elena Crowe. 2002. ‘The Relation between Children’s and Mothers’ Mental State Language and Theory-of-Mind Understanding’, Child Development 73.3: 734-51. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00435.

Ruffman, Ted, Joseph Perner, Mika Naito, Lindsay Parker, and Wendy A. Clements. 1998. ‘Older (But Not Younger) Siblings Facilitate False Belief Understanding’, Developmental Psychology 34.1: 161-74. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.34.1.161.

Shahaeian, Amenah, Mark Nielsen, Candida C. Peterson, and Virgina Slaughter. 2014. ‘Cultural and Family In?uences on Children’s Theory of Mind Development: A Comparison of Australian and Iranian School-Age Children’, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 45.4: 555-68. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022113513921.

Shahaeian, Amenah, Candida C. Peterson, Virginia Slaughter, and Henry M. Well­man. 2011. ‘Culture and the Sequence of Steps in Theory of Mind Development’, Developmental Psychology 47.5: 1239-47. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023899.

Shatz, Marta, Gill Diesendruck, I. Martinez-Beck, and D. Akar. 2003. ‘The In?uence of Language and Socioeconomic Status on Children’s Understanding of False Belief’, Developmental Psychology 39.4: 717-29. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.39.4.717.

Tardif, Twila, Henry M. Wellman, and Kar Man Cheung. 2004. ‘False Belief Understanding in Cantonese-Speaking Children’, Journal of Child Language 31.4: 779-800. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305000904006580.

Taylor, Marjorie, Bridget S. Cartwright, and Thomas Bowden. 1991. ‘Perspective Taking and Theory of Mind: Do Children Predict Interpretive Diversity as a Function of Differences in Observers’ Knowledge?’, Child Development 62: 1334-51. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/1130810.

Wellman, Henry M., David Cross, and Julanne Watson. 2001. ‘Meta-Analysis of Theory of Mind Development: The Truth About False Belief’, Child Development 72.3: 655-84. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00304.

Wellman, Henry M., Fuxi Fang, Daniel Liu, Liqi Zhu, and Guoxiong Liu. 2006. ‘Scaling Theory-of-Mind Understandings in Chinese Children’, Psychological Science 17: 1075-81. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01830.x.

Wellman, Henry M., and David Liu. 2004. ‘Scaling of Theory?of?Mind Tasks’, Child Development 75: 523-41. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00691.x.

Wigger, J. Brad, Katrina Paxson, and Lacey Ryan. 2013. ‘What Do Invisible Friends Know? Imaginary Companions, God, and Theory of Mind’, International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 23: 2-14. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10508619.2013.739059.

Willard, Aiyana, and Rita McNamara. 2019. ‘The Minds of God(s) and Humans: Differences in Mind perception in Fiji and North America’, Cognitive Science 43.1: e12703. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12703.

Wimmer, Heinz, and Joseph Perner. 1983. ‘Beliefs About Beliefs: Representation and Constraining Function on Wrong Beliefs in Young Children’s Understanding of Deception’, Cognition 13.1: 103-28. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0277(83)90004-5.

World Bank. 2019. ‘The World Bank in Albania’. Online: https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/albania.

World Population Review. 2019. Online: https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/albania-population/.

Yaniv, Ilan, and Marilyn Shatz. 1988. ‘Children’s Understanding of Perceptibility’, in Janet W. Astington, Paul L. Harris, and David R. Olson (eds.), Developing Theories of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 93-108.

Published

2020-08-05

How to Cite

Burdett, E. R. R., Barrett, J. L., & Greenway, T. S. (2020). Children’s Developing Understanding of the Cognitive Abilities of Supernatural and Natural Minds: Evidence from Three Cultures. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 14(1), 124–151. https://doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.39186

Issue

Section

CLOSED-Special Issue- Religious Diversity + Cognitive Science of Religion: New E