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Thinking about fantasy: Are children fundamentally different thinkers and believers from adults?
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Thinking about fantasy: Are children fundamentally different thinkers and believers from adults?

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  1. Thinking about fantasy:Are children fundamentally different thinkers and believers from adults? Jacqueline D. Woolley The University of Texas

  2. “ Children under the age of 7 are most at risk because they have trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy.” Sesame Street Parents magazine, February, 1999. • "... the boundary between reality and fantasy may still not be clearly drawn." • "... reality and imagination are not always kept strictly apart in the child's world.” Astington, J. W. (1993). The child's discovery of the mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (p. 63).

  3. Fantasy beliefs and behaviors in children • highest incidence of pretend play in children between the ages of 3 and 8 • highest level of children with imaginary companions in this same age range (Singer & Singer, 1990; Taylor, Cartwright, and Carlson, 1993). • high level of beliefs in event-related figures and supernatural figures (Rosengren & Hickling, 1994; Clark, 1995; Harris, Brown, Marriot, Whittal, and Harmer, 1991). • high level of beliefs in magic(Johnson & Harris, 1994; Rosengren & Hickling, 1994; Phelps & Woolley, 1994; Subbotsky, 1994).

  4. “Thinking fantastically” and “thinking about fantasy” • Thinking fantastically: • Children may reason about the world using principles that violate basic physical and biological (and maybe even mental) principles. • Thinking about fantasy: • Children may believe that various fantastical entities are real.

  5. Talk outline • Do children think fantastically? • Regarding the mental domain • Regarding the physical domain • Do adults think fantastically? • How do children think about fantasy? • Beliefs about the reality status of novel entities • How do adults think about fantasy? • Conclusions

  6. Do children fail to distinguish imagination and reality? • Do children believe they can create real, physical things with their imagination? • My research (Woolley & Wellman, 1990) - Yes, 3-year-olds do. • Paul Harris’s research (Harris, et al. 1991) - Yes, 4- to 6-year-olds do.

  7. Results • Study 1 • 1st choice - 99% gave E2 Box 1 (containing real item). • 2nd choice - 96% said there were no more. • Study 2 • 1st choice - 73% responded that there was no available object. • Study 1 + Study 2 • 10% gave E2 the box with the imagined item. Woolley & Phelps (1994)

  8. Lisa: Do plants wish for baby plants? • Deana: I think only people can make wishes. But God could put a wish inside a plant. • Teacher: What would the wish be? • Deana: What if it's a pretty flower? Then God puts an idea inside to make this plant into a pretty red flower -- if it's supposed to be red. • Teacher: I always think of people as having ideas. • Deana: It's just the same. God puts a little idea in the plant to tell it what to be. • Lisa: My mother wished for me and I came when it was my birthday. Vivian Gussin Paley, Walley's Stories (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981)

  9. Interview and prediction task results • Interview questions: 3-4 year olds 5-6 year olds Do you know what it means to make a wish? 65% 93% Have you ever made a wish? 54% 87% Do wishes always come true? 22% 0% Have own wishes come true? 56% 38% • Prediction task: Will _______ be in the box? 71% 31% • Woolley, Phelps, Davis, & Mandell (1999)

  10. Magical thinking regarding relations between physical entities • BALL PIPE: A pipe with a lightweight ball resting in the cup at the end of it. When air is blown into the pipe, the ball rises up. • MAGNIFIER: A clear jar with a magnifying glass in the lid enlarges a picture of a kitten placed in the jar. • FICKLE FOAM: A heat-sensitive black pad changes colors when warmed by a person's hand. • HAND BOILER: A glass container with bulbs at the top and the bottom, and a tube connecting the two. Blue liquid in the bottom of the glass rises to the top when it is warmed by the heat of a person's hand. • Explanation questions: • (1)"How do you think this happened?" (2)"Do you think this was magic, or not magic?"

  11. Phelps & Woolley, 1994

  12. Situations that lead to magical thinking in adults • 1. When faced with a threat which arouses anxiety (Keinan, 1994) • 2. Where perception of control is lacking (Langer, 1975) • 3. Games of chance (Weisz, 1981) • 4. Illness (Taylor, 1983; Taylor, Lichtman, & Wood, 1984) • 5. Stress (Keinan, 1994) • 6. Contemplation of death (Persinger & Makarec, 1990)

  13. Blum & Blum (1974) Walking under a ladder 47% Knocking on wood 41% Breaking a mirror 41% Blum (1976) Walking under ladder 46% Knocking on wood 46% Crossing fingers 35% Breaking a mirror 35% Gallup and Newport (1991) Faith healing 46% Demonic possession 49% Fortune telling 14% Frazier, as cited in Stanovich (1994) Astrology (adults) 58% Gallup (1984) Astrology (teens) 55% CHILDREN’S BELIEFS Imagination creates reality 42% (Woolley & Wellman) Imagination creates reality 23 -38 % (Woolley & Phelps) Touching/opening the monster box (Harris et al.) 50% 42% Categorized as “credulous” 63% (Johnson & Harris) 68% Believed in wishing 56% (Woolley, et al., 1999) 38% Superstitious beliefs in adults

  14. Some proponents of the credulity view • “ Children are especially credulous, especially gullible, especially prone toward acceptance and belief…” (Gilbert, 1991, p. 111) • “Children are naturally credulous… it is easy to see why natural selection… might penalize an experimental and skeptical turn of mind and favor simple credulity in children” (Dawkins, 1995, p. 32-33).

  15. Context study • Three conditions: Scientific, fantastical, everyday • Task: Judge reality of 3 novel entities • Two context manipulations: • (1) Children were read either a fantastical, scientific, or everyday story before task • (2) Novel entities were defined with reference to either a fantastical (dragon), scientific (scientist), or everyday (child) entity

  16. Sample novel entity and associated descriptions Surnit • Scientific condition. Scientists like to try to catch them. Surnits are usually medium-sized. Scientists collect surnits. • Fantasy condition. Dragons like to try to catch them. Surnits are usually medium-sized. Dragons collect surnits. • Everyday condition. Children like to try to catch them. Surnits are usually medium-sized. Children collect surnits. • Test question: Are surnits real or pretend? • Certainty assessment: How sure are you -- are you really sure, a little sure, or not so sure?

  17. Novel entities judged as real by age and condition Woolley & VanReet, 2006

  18. Mean summary scores by condition Woolley & VanReet, 2006

  19. Context effect by passer/failer status

  20. Candy Witch study • Difficulties in studying fantasy beliefs: • 1. Multiple sources of information • 2. Already developed beliefs at time of assessment

  21. Mean belief level (out of 2) • Candy Witch 1.4 • Santa Claus 1.6 • Easter Bunny 1.2 • Real entities (child, cat, teacher) 1.5

  22. Factors affecting belief level • Age • Whether children were “visited” by CW • Beliefs in familiar fantasy figures • Motivation to believe • Individual orientation toward fantasy

  23. Belief in the Candy Witch by age group and condition Visited Not visited Woolley, Boerger, & Markman, 2005

  24. ADULTS’ BELIEFS • 1988 Gallup Youth Survey; Frazier, 1989 • Big Foot 22% • Ghosts 22% • Loch Ness Monster 16% • Gallup and Newport (1991) • Haunted houses 29% • Ghosts 25% • Devils 55% • UFO sightings are real 47% • (Gallup pole; Zimmer, 1985) • UFOs are alien spaceships 32% • (Zimmer, 1985) • extraterrestrials have visited Earth 27% • (Gallup and Newport, 1991)

  25. “We go to church and he has CCD classes.... and they’re taught that God sees everything and he knows; he knows what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. If you need help, he’s there. And he watches over you. And I think, what I was telling him about Santa one time, about being good. Santa knows if you don’t behave. He kinda got the same feeling. “Oh well, Santa watches over me all year round too.”... He says, “Is he like God, does he do the same thing God does?” Clark, C.D. (1995), Flights of fancy, leaps of faith. University of Chicago Press.

  26. “One father told of the son asking him if he was really Santa Claus. The father had admitted that he was, after which the boy thought for a while, and then asked if his father was also the Tooth Fairy. Again the father admitted that he was. The son then asked if the father was also the Easter Bunny, and when the father said yes, the son asked “Are you God too?” Schiebe, C. (1987), Developmental differences in children’s reasoning about Santa Claus and other fantasy characters, Dissertation: Cornell University.

  27. Questions and Answers • Old question: Do children fail to differentiate fantasy from reality? • Old answer: Yes • New question: Do children and adults differ in their ability to differentiate fantasy from reality? • New answer: No. • Children are not uniformly credulous.

  28. What develops? • 1. Nothing. Children and adults are equipped with the same cognitive apparatus for distinguishing fantasy and reality, and that perceived differences in children’s thinking and behavior are entirely due to the sub-culture in which children are immersed. • Adults are authority figures. • War of the Worlds • Cults • 2. Differences between children and adults are a matter of domain-specific knowledge acquisition. • Children acquire knowledge on a case-by-case basis. • 3. Differences between children and adults may reflect a gradual shift in certainty. • Dichotomous scoring systems are problematic. • Children may be more willing to entertain possibilities. • 4. Children and adults differ in belief-consistency detection. • Interaction with knowledge-base • Information Processing procedures • Motivational component • 5. Children and adults differ in terms of discounting ability. • Negative emotion is generated • Reduction in availability effects • 6. Differences between children and adults are due (in part) to the acquisition of foundational concepts. • Appearance/Reality distinction

  29. Acknowledgements • This research is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development # R01-HD030300-06. • Many thanks to my graduate students, including Beth Boerger, Victoria Cox, Debra Davis, Katrina Phelps, and Ansley Tullos, and also to undergraduate Honors students Rachel Riskind, Jennifer VanReet and Dorothy Mandell. Additional thanks to all my wonderful 357 students, and to the parents and children who participated.