What could have been done? Counterfactual alternatives to negative outcomes generated by religious and secular children

Payir, Ayse; Heiphetz, Larisa A.; Harris, Paul; Corriveau, Kathleen

Recent research has shown that a religious upbringing renders children receptive to ordinarily impossible outcomes, but the underlying mechanism for this effect remains unclear. Exposure to religious teachings might alter children’s basic understanding of causality. Alternatively, religious exposure might only affect children’s religious cognition, not their causal judgments more generally. To test between these possibilities, 6- to 11-year-old children attending either secular (n = 49, 51% female, primarily White and middle-class) or parochial schools (n = 42, 48% female, primarily White and middle-class) heard stories in which characters experienced negative outcomes and indicated how those characters could have prevented them. Both groups of children spontaneously invoked interventions consistent with natural causal laws. Similarly, when judging the plausibility of several counterfactual interventions, participants endorsed the intervention consistent with natural laws at high levels, irrespective of schooling. However, children’s endorsement of supernatural interventions inconsistent with these laws revealed both group similarities and differences. Although both groups of children judged divine intervention (i.e., via prayer) as more plausible than mental (i.e., via wishing) and magical (i.e., via magical powers) interventions, children receiving religious (vs. secular) schooling were more likely to do so. Moreover, although children with a secular upbringing overwhelmingly chose naturalistic interventions as the most effective, children with a religious upbringing chose divine as well as naturalistic intervention. These results indicate that religious teaching does not alter children’s basic understanding of causality but rather adds divine intervention to their repertoire of possible causal factors.


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Developmental Psychology

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February 17, 2022


Keywords: possibility judgments, counterfactual thinking, religious cognition, social cognitive development, testimony, magical thinking