Acquisition of Religious Cognition and Behavior

Ontological Boundaries

How do cultural variations in religious concepts (e.g., beliefs about animism, the properties and functioning of spirit/life force/soul) relate to the development of ontological boundaries and the extent to which religious concepts are or are not minimally counterintuitive?  

     One of the key features of religious and supernatural concepts is that they tend to incorporate ontological boundary violations (Boyer, 1994, 2001). In cognitive development, children’s early concepts incorporate ontological distinctions, or distinctions about the ‘kind of thing’ an object, person, or event is (e.g., animate or inanimate; Gelman & Kalish, 2006). A primary cognitive bias that guides reasoning about ontological boundaries is psychological essentialism, which leads people to view members of a category as sharing a deep, underlying, inherent nature (a category “essence”), which causes the members to be fundamentally similar in both obvious and nonobvious ways (Rhodes, Leslie, & Tworek, 2012).


     Essentialist reasoning is found across cultures and ages, although the expression of this reasoning varies (Gelman, 2009). Gelman and Diesendruck (1999) have argued that the bias toward essentialism provides a placeholder into which children place information on the nature (i.e., ontology) of an individual or category.  For example, children younger than age 9 or 10 will claim that the identity characteristics of a person will travel with that person’s brain into the body of an animal (Gottfried et al., 1999; Johnson, 1990).  Additionally, Corriveau and colleagues (Corriveau, Pasquini & Harris, 2005) found that 5- to 7-year-old children (as well as a sample of adults) claimed a horse would still be a horse if a wizard put the mind of a child into the horse, but also that the horse would now have the child’s name, memories, preferences, and knowledge. These findings suggest the ontological status of an entity is not a stable feature, and also that ontological boundaries between different kinds of entities are not impenetrable. One cultural manifestation of essentialism is the concept of the spirit or soul. Research on children’s concepts of the soul and mind has suggested that certain supernatural or religious activities can alter the ontological status (or essence) of an entity (Richert & Lesage, in press). For example, Richert and Harris (2006) found that 4- to 12-year-old Catholic children were more likely to say the soul would be changed by a ritual (baptism) than the mind or the brain.


     A prevalent hypothesis in the cognitive science of religion is that ontological boundary violations make religious concepts minimally-counterintuitive and therefore likely to be transmitted within and across generations (Boyer, 1994, 2001). However, studies have indicated mixed findings about whether or not individuals actually remember minimally-counterintuitive concepts more and suggest such concepts may be more salient before the age of 25 (Gregory & Barrett, 2009). In addition, certain religious beliefs would be expected to relate to variation in ontological boundaries. For example, Native American children from the Menominee tribe have a less strong ontological boundary between humans and bears than their European American peers, reflecting the special status of the bear in Menominee culture (Medin, Waxman, & Woodring, 2010).


     The Developing Belief Network will examine cultural variations in ontological boundaries (i.e., ontological judgments, essentialist reasoning) as well as the mechanisms through which parents engage in socializing their children to develop ontological boundaries (i.e., testimony) and if, when, and how parents teach children to incorporate minimally-counterintuitive violations of those boundaries into their 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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