Episode 4: Blurry Lines Between the Impossible, Improbable and Impermissible

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Why do some kids blindly accept that an obese old man can easily slide down their chimney, but refuse to believe that they should eat their vegetables?

The answer will come as the first part of the next Tiger Lab trilogy on psychology and cognitive science.

Andrew Shtulman has been studying human intuition regarding supernatural explanations compared to scientific facts since his undergraduate years at Princeton University. As a psychology and cognitive science professor at Occidental College, he branched out to studying children’s development regarding notions of physical possibility—what is accepted as following the laws of physics on Earth.

This summer, Shtulman published his findings in the journal Cognitive Development (https://sites.oxy.edu/shtulman/documents/2014b.pdf). The study posits that children’s acceptance of Santa—and possibly other counter-intuitive phenomena—depends on the testimony offered by other people as well as their own understanding of physical possibility. He found that kids who were better at differentiating possible events from the impossible began to propose provisional alternative explanations for Santa. Even though all participants believed in Santa at the time of the survey, the participants who were able to differentiate between possible and impossible events more often challenged Santa with conceptual questions about his supernatural abilities (“How does Santa fits down the chimney?”), while children who were not yet able to make that distinction tended to ask more mundane questions (“What do elves do in the off-season?”).

Puzzling findings from his previous research on adult intuition prompted Shtulman to begin picking the brains of kids.

“I was inspired to do research on conceptual development by trying understand why people disagree about empirical matters,” Shtulman said via email.

Some people endorse evolutionary explanations for biological adaptation while others endorse creationist explanations, and some people endorse neural explanations for human consciousness while others endorse spiritual explanations. Shtulman set out to elucidate this.

“Some of that disagreement, it turns out, can be traced to people’s underlying theories of how the world works,” he said. “And some of it can be traced to people’s strategies for interpreting and evaluating empirical data.”

In his previous studies, Shtulman found that people endorse supernatural or creationist explanations of biological adaptation more commonly than the scientific explanation of evolution. Interestingly, believers of science more commonly endorse incorrect natural explanations. Shtulman says that this logic applies to phenomena such as the origins of the universe and life, climate change, natural disasters, human consciousness and the causes of illness and death.

Spring 2015, Shtulman proposed a study of the conceptual development of children’s intuition for the James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Science Initiative in Understanding Human Cognition Scholar Award. He received the $600,000 grant in September, which, according to Occidental’s website (http://oxy.edu/news/fact-or-fable), will allow him to advise 25 Occidental students in his lab for summer research, and conduct research and teach classes related to the research with two postdoctoral fellows.

Shtulman is well into his research and has found contradicting evidence regarding the intuitive capacity of the young mind.

“Many people think of children as empty vessels, ready to be filled with knowledge,” Shtulman wrote in his grant proposal.

But, Shtulman wrote, children as young as eight are actually highly skeptical of extraordinary events and fantasy characters with physically impossible traits, but and are unsure whether that magic is real. This is contradicted by the fact that young kids will initially deny the possibility of anything that violates their expectations—including both impossible events (flying) and improbable but possible events (finding an alligator under the bed). It takes several years for children to begin reflecting on the validity of their expectations.

According to Shtulman, beliefs surrounding Santa Claus are a good case study of how children learn from testimony and how they use intuition and their own knowledge to evaluate the claims. When children become critical at about age eight or nine, disbelief in Santa could come from someone revealing the truth, or they could develop the skepticism on their own. Shtulman said that there is evidence that kids question Santa on their own because they have a more sophisticated understanding of physical possibility at that time.

In order to interpret this contradiction, Shtulman developed a narrower test of children’s understanding of physical possibility. He matched impossible events against improbable events (as opposed to ordinary events, as done in his previous research), hypothesizing that children would not be able to differentiate the two unless they truly understand the physical laws of Earth, which impossible events violate but improbable events do not.

Julia Hamilton (junior) and three other Oxy students helped collect the data in Spring 2015.

Hamilton said that their team, clad in Occidental gear and prepared to be declined or incessantly questioned by skeptical parents, visited parks around Los Angeles in search of three to nine-year-olds to whom they could administer a survey in the form of a story book.

The book prompted the participants to answer questions about the possibility of various morally impermissible yet possible actions and some impossible events (sans any mention of Santa).

Hamilton gave an example scenario in the book.

“Lily is supposed to clean her room,” Hamilton proposed. “Instead of cleaning her room, she shoves all her toys under her bed.”

The researcher would then ask, “is it possible for her to shove all her toys under the bed?”
Hamilton encountered many kids that said it was impossible, which revealed that those participants had not yet developed the distinction between imorally impermissible and physically impossible actions.

“[Shtulman] found results that we expected; that kids confuse those two things,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said that their research team ended up recording only 40 usable participants last semester due to unexpected challenges of working with young kids.

“Some of the kids, if they’re too young, will kind of not pay attention,” Hamilton said.

“One time someone fell off a playground and started crying.”

According to Hamilton, Shtulman wants at least 100 participants to solidify the results. He is already pretty certain of his findings.

“Professor Shtulman was making the conclusion that, because kids don’t yet have that learned ability to differentiate between impermissible things and impossible things, all humans learn,” Hamilton said. “We’re not just born with that innate ability.”

Shtulman is currently writing a book for the general public entitled Getting the world wrong: How our intuitive theories can blind us to reality to explain his recent findings in the broader context of intuitive theories.

The book includes Shtulman’s research as well as observations about the behavior of people around him in light of what he knows about conceptual development, particularly his children’s behavior.

“It’s filled with the funny, yet theoretically insightful, things my kids have said,” Shtulman said. “I’ve been recording interesting conversations between me and them for several years now.”