Research reveals how children form their beliefs about what’s real in their world

A new study has revealed the sophisticated systems children use to form their beliefs about what’s real or not real in their world, showing that “rituals” can have a reinforcing impact on their beliefs.

Research published in PLOS ONE, led by Dr Rohan Kapitany from Keele’s School of Psychology, investigated what it was that led children to believe that certain figures or characters in their world were more or less real than one another, and how they come to form these understandings.

Their examples ranged from real people in the children’s lives like family members, to “supernatural” figures like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, all the way through to characters from fiction, with the results highlighting that children are sensible and nuanced in their endorsement of which figures are real or not while still being able to think imaginatively.

The researchers found that social rituals associated with some of these supernatural figures increased childrens’ endorsement of them as being real, with figures such as Santa and the Tooth Fairy being judged as only slightly ‘less real’ than humans the child knows in real life.

But the children assessed were still found to employ a sensible approach to evaluating their beliefs, with humans being endorsed most strongly as being real followed by ritualistic figures like Santa Claus, then ‘ambiguous’ figures like dinosaurs and aliens, and finally mythical and fictional figures were the least believed in.

Dr Kapitany said: “Through these findings we have advanced the theory, as others have before us, that the observation and performance of rituals in the service of supernatural agents serves as a kind of evidence for the agents’ reality-status.

“We are, however, the first to provide broad support for this claim across a whole range of figures, although alternative explanations do exist. Probably the most profound implication of this work is in the context of teaching children about other cultural constructs like religion, and what role religious rituals play when it comes to ‘convincing’ children that deities exist.”