Transmission of Religious Cognition and Behavior

Learning Via Verbal Information

How do cross-cultural and within-cultural variations in verbal information provided to children relate to children’s concepts about and belief in natural and supernatural agents and causes?

     Children learn about the world, not only via first-hand experience, but also through conversation and discussion with other people, particularly familiar and trusted adults.  This type of testimony-based learning (Harris, Koenig, Corriveau & Jaswal, 2017; Harris, 2012; Harris & Corriveau, 2011) is especially important when children learn about unobservable phenomena and ordinarily impossible phenomena that defy causal expectations. Research on the development of religious and supernatural beliefs can help to elucidate the transmission process associated with claims that cannot easily – or in some cases ever – be verified through the child’s first-hand experience. The Developing Belief Network will extend the body of research on testimony-based learning by taking a multi-level and multi-dimensional view of the sources of information available to young children.


     Recent studies prompt us to examine parental explanations as an important influence on the way that children begin to conceptualize phenomena in the domain of religion (Campbell & Corriveau, 2018; Canfield & Ganea, 2014).  First, parents indirectly signal to children their confidence in the existence of particular phenomena, through phrases like “I think” or “I believe” when describing fantastical entities but not when describing scientific and historical entities whose existence they take for granted (Canfield & Ganea, 2014).  Second, children’s reference to evidence is related to the frequency with which parents invoke relevant evidence (Luce, Callanan, & Smilovic, 2013).  Third, in a sample of Chinese Christian children, parental judgment of unobservable entities (e.g., germs, God) accounted for unique variance in children’s judgments (Cui, Clegg, Harris & Corriveau, in press). Notably, this strong influence of parental testimony was not present in a similar sample of Chinese secular children, and there were no differences by age in our sample of 5-11-year-old children. Moreover, when US children and their parents were invited to consider the knowledge of God, parental judgment of God’s omniscience accounted for unique variance in their children’s belief (Richert et al., 2017). These studies highlight the potential similarity (and well as variability) in the transmission process from adult testimony. An open question is what the mechanisms are that explain the within-cultural differences in the impact of adult testimony on children’s belief.

     We also will examine the influence of community and peer testimony. Although parental testimony likely serves as an important mechanism for the transmission of religious concepts, such testimony is not the only narrative children are likely to hear. We hypothesize that with age, the testimony from the child’s community might become increasingly important, as might the testimony from children’s peer groups. Very little is known about the relative weighting of vertical and horizontal transmission of information through testimony from parents, peers, and the community – especially in instances where testimony from these groups is in conflict. Some research indicates cultural differences in the relative weighing of consensus information and first-hand experience (Corriveau & Harris, 2010; Corriveau et al., 2013; Corriveau, DiYanni, Clegg et al., 2016; DiYanni, Corriveau et al., 2015), and some preliminary research is exploring within- and between-cultural individual differences in possibility judgments in the US (where there is religious pluralism), China (largely secular), and Iran (largely religious; Clegg et al., 2019; Cui et al., in press; Davoodi et al., 2018; Harris & Corriveau, 2019; Payir et al., 2018). To explore within-culture variability, they are exploring differences in judgments of children who are a religious minority (i.e., Chinese Christians) in their community (Cui et al., in press).


     The Developing Belief Network will explore cultural variation in the use of different sources of information to transmit religious concepts.

The Developing Belief Network is funded by The John Templeton Foundation, with additional support from the University of California, Riverside and Boston University, and involves a partnership with Databrary.

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