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Developing Belief:

Cognitive and Cultural Influences on Belief


Date: Friday, November 15, 2019

Time: 8:00am – 6:30pm

Location: Alumni and Visitors Center, University of California, Riverside



8:00 – 9:00          Arrive [breakfast provided]


9:00 – 9:30          Welcome

                                  Dr. Rebekah Richert (University of California, Riverside)

                                  Dean Milagros Peña (College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, University of California, Riverside)


9:30 – 10:00         Introductions


10:00 – 11:30         Developing Supernatural & Scientific Beliefs


                                   How Children's Cognitive Reflection Shapes Their Scientific Beliefs

                                   Dr. Andrew Shtulman (Occidental College)


                                  Belief in the Unseen: The Interaction of Cognition and Culture in the Development of Concepts of God and the Afterlife

                                  Dr. Melanie Nyhof (Northwestern College)


                                  Religious Differences in Children's Folk Beliefs about God

                                  Dr. Rebekah Richert (University of California, Riverside)


11:30 – 12:30         Lunch

12:30 – 2:00         Cognitive and Developmental Perspectives on Moral Beliefs

                                   The Spread of Essentialist Beliefs

                                   Dr. Marjorie Rhodes (New York University)

                                  Developmental Perspectives on Dishonesty

                                  Dr. Gail Heyman (University of California, San Diego)


                                  The Development of Reasoning about Religious Norms: Insights from Hindu and Muslim Children in India

                                  Dr. Mahesh Srinivasan (University of California, Berkeley)


2:00 – 2:15            Break


2:15 – 3:45             Reflections on Belief


                                  What is Different About Religious Norms

                                  Dr. Auden Dahl (University of California, Santa Cruz)


                                  Two Philosophical Theses about the Nature of Belief and Their Relevance to Empirical Research

                                  Dr. Eric Schwitzgebel (University of California, Riverside)


                                  The Agony and the Ecstasy: Abjection, Media, Belief

                                  Dr. Derek Burrill (University of California, Riverside)



3:45 – 4:00          Break


4:00 – 5:15           Social Construction of Belief


                                 Children's Conversations with Parents about Beliefs

                                 Dr. Maureen Callanan (University of California, Santa Cruz)


                                 The Role of Religious Exposure in Children's Conceptualization of What is Real and What is Possible

                                 Dr. Kathleen Corriveau (Boston University)


5:15 – 5:30          Closing Remarks


5:30 – 6:30         Reception


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Derek A. Burrill
The Agony and the Ecstasy: Abjection, Media, Belief 



In this presentation, I will explore Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, as set forth in Powers of Horror.  Abjection is essentially a third mode of materiality or state of being, beyond the object and subject, where the self and other become estranged.  Causes for this include the presence of viscera and human filth, facing one’s corporeal dissolution and death, and/or a scene of horror that jolts one back to the pre-symbolic.

I argue here that one of the central ways that we experience the abject is through representations in the media: the White Walkers in Game of Thrones or the zombies in Walking Dead, news coverage of children in cages at the US Southern border, a torture scene in a police procedural, a photograph of a dead Syrian refugee boy on a beach, repetitive and gruesome deaths in a videogame.  Each of these is also a reminder of the othering that Kristeva’s theorizes as one of the natural ends of constant abjection, and their natural metastases: sexism, racism, xenophobia, genocide.  However, within the seeds of the abject experience are also an artistic and creative impulse, one that seeks to shield oneself from the bleakness of abjection, as well as the ecstatic religious tradition, a transcending of the self found throughout religious practice and belief.  Using Kristeva’s work, I argue that representations of abjection in contemporary media operate as a kind of stand-in, a mode to process the horror with which the self must eventually reckon.  Additionally, these scenes of abjection evoke ecstatic religious feelings (this is significant because of the falling numbers of North Americans who identify as religious).  Finally, I theorize that media representations of abjection where breakdown of the social order, of the taboo and forbidden, can be explored as a means of navigating the new politics of identity and selfhood. 

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Maureen Callanan
Children’s Conversations with Parents about Beliefs 



In everyday conversations with parents, young children develop, revise, and inquire about beliefs.  Using a variety of naturalistic methods, my lab studies family conversations about science-related topics as a way to understand diverse children’s developing habits of thinking. In this talk I’ll present findings from several studies investigating how children learn ways of thinking about ‘knowing.’  One contrast we’ve explored is how much families focus on evidence when discussing beliefs versus treating beliefs as stable facts. For example, in one study we asked parents to read a science-themed book with their 4- to 8-year-old children, where different pages raised questions about topics such as climate change and gender stereotypes.  Guided by Deanna Kuhn’s framework of epistemological stances, we coded parents’ expressions of epistemology-related information (e.g., using evidence to reason about an opinion, appealing to statements of fact that do not need evidence, or pointing out that knowing for sure may not be possible). We found variation in parents’ expressions of epistemological information by children’s age and gender as well as by topic.  Also, parents’ expressions of evaluativist epistemology (expressing the value of reasoning with evidence) were correlated with children’s talk about evidence.  To the extent that children experience different conversational environments, they may seek different types of answers to questions, become familiar with different ways of thinking about ‘knowing,’ and develop different strategies for being selective about learning from others.  I will discuss how these findings may relate to research on children’s developing beliefs about moral domains.

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Kathleen Corriveau
The Role of Religious Exposure in Children's Conceptualization of What is Real and What is Possible



Children acquire knowledge through direct personal experience and exploration in both the scientific and religious domains; however, they also acquire knowledge indirectly through the testimony of others. Indeed, testimony is especially important when acquiring knowledge in domains where first-hand experience is limited or impossible, such as ordinarily unobservable scientific (e.g., bacteria) and religious phenomena (e.g., God). In this talk, I focus on individual and developmental differences in children’s ability to make ontological judgments based on environmental and cultural influences such as religious and scientific exposure. I present findings from children growing up in the United States, China, and Iran, and highlight the role of community consensus in children’s use of parental testimony when determining the existence of things they cannot readily see for themselves.

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Religions regulate social interactions through norms for how to eat, pray, dress, or speak. Hindu children learn that they should not eat beef, and Muslim children learn that they should not eat pork. Adhering to religious norms can conflict with self-interest, as when followers are required to fast, or moral concern, as when followers are requested to harm non-believers (Atran & Ginges, 2012; Callimachi, 2018; Hadid, 2018). According to one perspective, religious individuals automatically accept religious norms: Commands from gods or priests define what is right (Fiske & Rai, 2015). By contrast, we propose that children and adults do not confuse authority commands with their own judgments of right and wrong, but separate religious norms from moral norms about welfare and non-religious social conventions (Dahl & Killen, 2018; Srinivasan, Kaplan, & Dahl, in press). A recent study interviewed Hindu and Muslim youth (N = 97, 9-14 years) about religious, moral, and conventional norms. Compared to moral norms about hitting and helping, religious norms were more often said to stem from religious authorities, more often said to be alterable, and less often said to be “good” rules. Participants also distinguished religious norms from social conventions (e.g., school dress codes). These distinctions were especially pronounced among older and Hindu participants. These and other findings show that religious children do not confuse religion and morality, but separate religious commands from moral and social-conventional concerns. The broader implication is that religious individuals do not uncritically accept norms from religious authorities, but can scrutinize and sometimes reject religious norms.

Audun Dahl
What is Different About Religious Norms?
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Gail Heyman
Developmental Perspectives on Dishonesty



By strategically engaging in dishonest behavior, people have the ability to shape social narratives in ways that have far-reaching consequences for themselves, and for others. However, dishonest behavior also carries tremendous social costs, as it undermines trust within interpersonal relationships and institutions. In this talk I will present experimental work on the developmental origins of dishonesty, including evidence that children’s ability to deceive is linked to specific cognitive skills. I will also discuss how children navigate the dilemmas they sometimes face as they decide whether to be honest, including how they engage in reputation-management strategies. Finally, I will present some new work that suggests children’s social and physical environments can be configured in ways that promote honest behavior. 







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Belief in the Unseen: The Interaction of Cognition and Culture in the Development of Concepts of God and the Afterlife



Children’s thinking about such religious concepts as God and the afterlife has been well-documented in Western cultures. However less attention has been given to children’s developing understanding of those concepts in non-Western cultures. In this talk I will discuss research that seeks to address that gap by focusing on cultures in China and Indonesia that are uniquely pertinent to the ongoing discussions of religious conceptual development. How do children growing up in an atheistic society (China) think about the afterlife? How does a death-centric culture (Tana Toraja in Indonesia) influence children’s understanding of death and the afterlife? How do theological and religious differences impact the development of children’s God concepts? In this talk I will present my findings and on-going projects as well as discuss some of the challenges and on-going questions of conducting research in different cultures.





Melanie Nyhof

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Marjorie Rhodes
The Spread of Essentialist Beliefs



In early childhood, children develop the belief that some ways of dividing up the social world reflect fundamentally distinct kinds of people. These essentialist beliefs can contribute to the development of stereotyping, interfere with inter-group relations, and even limit what children see as possible for themselves to achieve. How do these essentialist beliefs spread across communities? This talk will present experimental research revealing how subtle linguistic cues both reflect and elicit essentialist beliefs and thus can facilitate their spread across generations and communities. I will illustrate these processes drawing on an experimental study of children from across the United States and the United Kingdom conducted via a new, online video-based laboratory; a large field experiment in the New York City Public Schools; and detailed laboratory studies examining the mechanisms underlying the transmission of these beliefs from speaker to listener. I will end with a discussion of how revealing the mechanisms underlying the transmission of these often problematic beliefs can provide important new insight into how to block their development and spread across communities.

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Rebekah Richert
Religious Differences in Children's Folk Beliefs about God



This paper will argue that because God is an unseen agent that children cannot physically see or touch, children rely on folk inference systems to interpret cultural information about God. This cultural information can come in the form of explicit and direct religious teaching and instruction, but also often comes in the form of exposure to parental and/or societal views about God that a part of the developmental context and therefore are indirect sources of information for children. We examined how children from varying religious backgrounds develop folk theories of God that coordinate inferences about God’s reality status (ontological status), physical abilities (folk physics), embodiment (folk biology), and mental states (folk psychology). Participants were 219 3- to 6-year-old children (56.6% female) from four religious groups: Protestant Christian (n = 63), Roman Catholic (n = 47), Muslim (n = 64), and Non-Affiliated (n = 45).  Findings indicated systematic religious variation along each dimension in young children’s beliefs about what God is like.  

Eric Schwitzgebel
Two Philosophical Theses about the Nature of Belief and
Their Relevance to Empirical Research



Thesis 1: Philosophers, psychologists, and ordinary people often implicitly treat attitudes like belief as a yes/no does she really believe it or not matter.  This is implicitly revealed in developmental psychology, for example, by the attempt to figure out at what age a child "really knows" something, like that beliefs can be false or that objects can continue to exist unperceived.  If belief is, as I contend, a broad dispositional pattern of tending to act and react in ways characteristic of a believer, then this search for a yes-or-no answer in seemingly muddy cases is misguided.  Thesis 2: Measures of attitudes often rely on verbal report.  This implicitly commits to what I call "intellectualism" about belief on which sincere assertion of a proposition is approximately sufficient for counting as believing it.  If we accept a broader-based dispositional approach to belief (a "walk the walk" view), then the relationship between verbal expression and attitude possession is more complicated than typical attitude-survey methods allow. 

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Andrew Shtulman
How Children’s Cognitive Reflection Shapes Their Scientific Beliefs



Learning science requires contending with intuitions that are incompatible with scientific principles, such as the intuition that animals are alive but plants are not or the intuition that solids are composed of matter but gases are not. In this talk, I will present research on how children’s ability to learn counterintuitive scientific ideas relates to how often they reflect on their intuitions. Our participants were children between the ages of five and twelve. They were administered a science test, in which they judged statements about life and matter as true or false, as well as a cognitive reflection test, in which they answered “brain teasers” designed to elicit an intuitive, yet inaccurate, response that could be corrected upon further reflection. Participants also received a tutorial on the scientific properties of life or matter. We found that participants verified counterintuitive scientific statements (e.g., “air has weight”) less accurately and more slowly than closely-matched intuitive ones (e.g., “rocks have weight”). Instruction increased participants’ accuracy but not their speed. We also found that participants’ performance on the science test was predicted by their performance on the cognitive reflection test, independent of age. Children who demonstrated higher levels of cognitive reflection not only verified scientific statements more accurately but also demonstrated greater learning from the tutorial. These results indicate that children experience conflict between scientific and intuitive conceptions of a domain in the earliest stages of learning science but can resolve that conflict in favor of scientific conceptions if predisposed toward cognitive reflection. 

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Mahesh Srinivasan
The Development of Reasoning about Religious Norms:
Insights from Hindu and Muslim Children in India


Children who live in pluralistic societies often encounter members of other religious and secular groups who hold radically different beliefs and norms. Under these circumstances, developing religious tolerance––respecting that each group has its own beliefs and norms––is both challenging and crucial. When individuals in pluralistic societies fail to develop religious tolerance, the consequences can be dire. For example, in India, Muslims have recently been attacked because they were suspected of violating the Hindu prohibition against killing cows. Promoting peaceful co-existence among groups thus requires understanding how people construe and tolerate differences in religious norms and beliefs. In this talk, I will present a recent line of work on the development of religious tolerance among Hindu and Muslim children in Gujarat, India—a site of recent violent Hindu-Muslim conflict. These studies explore how Hindu and Muslim children and adults conceptualize norms from their own religion, as well as norms from the other religion. For example, we probe beliefs about to whom religious norms apply, whether violations of these norms should be punished, who has the authority to change religious norms, and how the contexts in which norm violations take place affect evaluations.  Our findings suggest that although adult’s and children’s application of religious norms across groups and contexts often allows for peaceful coexistence, it might also lead to conflict.  

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