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Acquisition of Religious Cognition and Behavior

Folk Theories

Do children need to have a foundational folk theory of humans before they can develop a concept of supernatural agents?  

     To acquire and utilize information from their environment, children rely on and refine intuitive theories (Gelman & Legare, 2011). Intuitive theories differ from scientific theories in that they are implicit as opposed to explicit and imprecise as opposed to precise. Intuitive theories are similar to scientific theories in their cognitive functions which include “organiz[ing] experience, generat[ing] inferences, guid[ing] learning, and influenc[ing] behavior and social interactions” (Gelman & Legare, 2011, p. 379).


     The most widely accepted folk theories are folk physics, folk biology, and folk psychology. Folk physics involves reasoning about the physical laws that constrain objects (Baillargeon, 2008), folk biology involves reasoning about living kinds (Gelman & Legare, 2011), and folk psychology involves thinking about human actions in terms of beliefs, desires, intentions, and goals (Gelman & Legare, 2011). Other folk theories have been proposed, including (a) a folk sociology which relies on non-mental properties, such as age, gender, occupation, race, rank when interpreting and predicting others’ actions (e.g., Hirschfeld, Bartmess, White, & Frith, 2007), and (b) a folk anthropology focused on processing information about the essential nature of objects and humans (Richert & Lesage, in press).


     Children’s developing folk theories play a critical role in the acquisition and construction of religious cognition because supernatural agents and causes require greater reliance on inference and testimony than on first-hand observation (Richert & Lesage, in press). Children’s folk theories are influenced by their cultural context (ojalehto & Medin, 2014). For example, research on children’s concepts of God highlights the different ways in which children rely on their folk theory of human minds to understand God’s mind and the physical nature of God. Children of Muslim parents differentiate more strongly than children of Christian or Non-Affiliated parents between God’s mind and human minds (Richert et al., 2017) and do not associate embodied characteristics to God, unlike their Christian and Non-Affiliated peers (Richert et al., 2016). These findings speak to debates about whether cognition has evolved to be ‘prepared’ to process information about varieties of agents (including supernatural agents) (Barrett & Richert, 2003) or if children must first develop a concept of humans before developing concepts of the supernatural (Lane & Harris, 2014).


     The Developing Belief Network will examine cross-cultural similarity and variation in the extent to which children’s folk theories of supernatural agents (i.e., theory of mind) and explanations (i.e., causal reasoning) mirror or diverge from their folk theories of humans.

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