Young children (4-6 age range) know that some story characters are or were real (Barack Obama or Queen Victoria) and that some story characters are not real (Harry Potter or the characters from Spirit Animals). But what happens with children who grow up being told that a fantastical character is real?
Kathleen Corriveau, Eva Chen, and Paul Harris decided to find out. The results are in their paper Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children from Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds.
There is strong evidence that children can readily distinguish between real stories and unreal stories. Use of magic or other unrealistic events in a story seems to be a giveaway to the story being fiction rather than real. Keep in mind that we are talking about kindergarten aged children.
But there are children, the majority of the children in the US, who are taught, by trusted adults, that magical things are real. Magical food that can appear and feed hundreds. Water that allows some people to pass and not others. Even transmutation of substances from one thing into another thing.
What’s amusing is that I wrote those last three to be non-specific. It was only after I finished writing it that I realized I could describe events in both the Harry Potter series and the Christian Bible with those same phrases. I was talking about the Bible, of course. I find two things interesting here. The first is that several Christians have attacked the Harry Potter stories, when their own books have the same stories. The second is that one book is readily determined to be fiction, while the other is commonly held to be absolutely true, despite the exact same fantastical events. But I digress.
Three studies (Subbotsky 1985, Subbotsky 1994, and Bering and Parker 2014) have shown that when a trusted adult tells children (in the 4-6 age range) that something fantastical is real, then children are significantly more likely to believe in the thing. Other studies have shown that even children who can accept the difference between fiction and fact increasingly accept that God is factual, but with special powers that humans do not have (does not age, for example).
Thus, children who are taught to believe impossible outcomes can occur may not treat religious stories as fairy tales, but instead treat the protagonists as real people. Even if there are otherwise impossible events in the story.
Two additional studies support this prediction. In th ese two studies it was shown that two stories with the same event (parting of the sea, for example), children were more likely to accept as real when divine intervention was mentioned. Older children (6 year olds) were more likely to accept this, as were children with a Christian upbringing and even just familiarity with religious stories.
The study by Corriveau et. al. was very simple. Four groups of students were presented with realistic stories with no magical elements, fantastical stories with magic, but not divine intervention, and religious stories that included miracles through divine intervention.
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away. However, God sent Joseph many dreams warning about terrible storms, and Joseph used those dreams to tell the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. Joseph used his magical powers to see into the future, and told the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. The king realized that Joseph was very good at looking at clouds and predicting when there would be rain. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends
The four groups were
- Students attending a parochial school
- Students regularly attending church
- Students attending both a parochial school and church
- Students who did not regularly attend church and who did not attend a parochial school
I won’t go into all the details of the study and how the children were questioned and such. The details are available in the paper, free on the internet. I’ll just move on to the results.
All four groups of children performed significantly above chance in judging story protagonists in a story with realistic content as real, and they frequently justified that categorization by referring to realistic elements of the story.
For the stories with religious content, “secular” children judged the stories to be pretend and “religious” children judged the stories to be real.
The difference between the religious and secular children is further highlighted by the pattern of justifications that children offered. Not surprisingly, religious children made more references to religion than did secular children. However, when secular children did offer a religious justification, it was used to justify their categorization of the protagonist as pretend.
I find that to be very interesting. Children with no references for religion used religious justifications for the character’s pretendness.
Unexpectedly, children’s judgments about the protagonists in fantastical stories varied depending on their exposure to religion. Children exposed to religion via church or parochial schooling were less likely to judge such characters as pretend.
The researchers suggest that exposure to religion is enough to change how children interpret not only religious stories, but all stories.
I do wonder if this is effect could be responsible for the issues that we have in society today. Specifically, the anti-science and conspiracy theorists. Given that the majority of people in the US are religious and had a religious upbringing, could that loss of ability to distinguish fact from fiction cause an increase in belief in conspiracy theories and anti-science notions?
The researchers asked a similar question about these children.
It is possible that religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal regularities.
They used similar stories and asked the students to categorize the main character as “real” or “pretend” and explain why.
Here are the stories.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Across all four stories, again, secular children were more likely to judge the character as pretend.
This particular test distinguishes between students’ tendency to associate fantastical stories with familiar Bible stories. The idea is that the religious students are familiar with the story of Moses. Therefore, there should have been a larger difference between the religious and secular students on those stories, but not the stories about the mountain.
This was not the case. The religious children were more likely to judge all of the characters as real. What’s even more interesting is that almost none of the justifications for the character being real were based in religion. The secular students were able to distinguish between realistic and fantastical due to the impossibilities in the story, but religious children were not.
There is a lot of discussion of the limitations of these kinds of studies near the end of the paper. However, the significance of the results are not to underestimated. The results are clear.
Children from religious upbringings have a more difficult time distinguishing between real and fantastical than children raised without religion. It seems clear that the upbringing of children has a large impact on the way that students process information in stories that they encounter. Whether those stories be in the latest fiction novel or the newspaper (which is a frightening thought).
Bering, J. M., & Parker, B. D. (2006). Children’s attributions of intentions to an invisible agent. Developmental Psychology, 42, 253–262. doi: http://dx.doi.org.eproxy1.lib.hku.hk/10.1037/0012-1622.214.171.124
Subbotsky, E. V. (1985). Preschool children’s perception of unusual phenomena. Soviet Psychology, 23, 91– 114.
Subbotsky, E. V. (1994). Early rationality and magical thinking in preschoolers: Space and time. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 12, 97–108.