British Journal of Developmental Psychology (2014), 32, 388–390 © 2014 The British Psychological Society www.wileyonlinelibrary.com
What do mind readers know and what do we know about mind readers? Jacqueline D. Woolley* The University of Texas at Austin, Texas, USA In this commentary, I raise various questions about Kim and Harris’s fascinating findings. I ask what kind of knowledge children expect telepathic individuals to have, who children might consider to be good mind readers, why children value telepathy, and how puzzled children are by telepathy. I suggest potential ways to address some of these questions and end by reiterating the importance of probing individual differences in scepticism and credulity.
If two people gave you conflicting information about the world, how would you decide which person to believe? Perhaps, it would depend on what the topic of conversation was – you might consider one person to be more of an expert on a particular topic. Or perhaps it would depend on your previous interactions with these people – maybe one of them was your best friend, whereas the other was your know-it-all brother in law. Previous research has shown that, by a very young age, children consider factors like familiarity, reliability, and expertise in deciding whom to trust. Kim and Harris (2014b) take this line of research to a new level in considering whether children also value people with extraordinary powers or supernatural abilities as trustworthy informants. They find that children who succeed in differentiating people with telepathic ability from those who lack such extraordinary means of knowing others’ minds also prefer to learn new information from telepathic individuals. Kim and Harris situate this finding in the long-standing tendency of adults to appeal to informants who they believe to possess special powers – Shamans, witchdoctors, fortune tellers, and gods – stating that these special individuals are sought for their ability ‘to anticipate or alter the course of events and to bring about desired outcomes. . .’ (p. 4). In a way, it’s kind of odd to think that someone would seek someone with special powers for something as mundane as learning a label. Although one might seek information about one’s future from a fortune-teller, one would presumably not employ a fortune-teller to learn a new language. Although one might attempt to communicate with God to understand the meaning of a traumatic personal event, one would not seek out God to brush up on calculus. For the majority of our quests for world knowledge, most of us have other kinds of experts to whom we might turn – teachers, parents, scientists, and the Internet. An interesting question is whether children also think this way outside of the context of this experiment. Because Santa Claus knows whether we’ve been bad or good,
*Correspondence should be addressed to Jacqueline D. Woolley, The University of Texas at Austin, 108 E. Dean Keeton, Stop A8000, Austin, TX 78712, USA (email: [email protected]
does he also know the words to the National Anthem? Would he know something about object labels? Would God be a good source of scientific facts? If children really do, as these results suggest, value telepathic people as sources of information about the world then presumably God and Santa Claus would also be considered good informants. It’s also interesting to think about what would happen if these researchers pitted a telepathic person against a teacher or a scientist in this experimental paradigm. From whom would children prefer to learn? This brings up the question of why children preferred to learn from the telepathic individual. As the authors acknowledge, as the two differentiator groups did not differ, it’s not because she’s magic. Is she seen as omniscient? Is it that if she knows one thing, she’s more likely to know another? This doesn’t seem right, as both informants actually know the answer. Kim and Harris suggest that children come to trust someone’s competence and then extend that trust to other domains. But what is the nature of that competence? The difference between the two informants lies in how they learned the information, with one appearing to learn with significantly less effort. So is it that one is simply a more efficient learner? Perhaps, this could be tested by having one telepathic person answer quickly and the other answer with more contemplation. Alternatively, one could contrast two ‘normal’ people, with one participating in a lengthy discussion before revealing the contents of the other person’s thoughts and the other requiring simply a quick exchange. It seems important to get a clearer sense of why children preferred to learn from the telepathic individual. An important question the research raises is why there are age differences in seeming to understand that a person could read another person’s thoughts. It’s a bit odd to ask this question, as of course we can’t actually read someone’s thoughts. But given that the concept of telepathy is present among adults in our culture, it’s no different than asking about how children learn about other things adults believe in, from superstitions to politics to religion. The authors raise two possibilities regarding their developmental findings: (1) younger children don’t (yet) have a concept of telepathy, and (2) young children think it’s generally possible to know other people’s thoughts and so, when faced with such a feat, don’t feel compelled to appeal to extraordinary powers. My gut feeling is that it’s the former, but the authors side with the latter, suggesting also that the older children found the events more puzzling. Yet, we lack explicit evidence that the older children did indeed find the events more puzzling. I wonder if it would be possible to assess puzzlement. This brings up the larger question of what people tend to do when they encounter unusual or seemingly impossible events. One thing people do is appeal to supernatural explanations, like magic, karma, and miracles. Another thing people do perhaps equally as often, or even more often, is simply deny that the event actually occurred. It may be that the younger children do find the event puzzling but instead of appealing to telepathy (since they’ve never heard of it), they essentially deny that extraordinary communication has occurred and instead assert that the person was told the answer. It would be interesting to look more systematically at when children are more likely to appeal to extraordinary forces and when they are more likely to simply deny the existence of unusual events. The results of the present study conflict with Kim and Harris’s earlier finding that children who believed in magic were more willing to learn from a magical-seeming person (Kim & Harris, 2014a). It may simply be that many children, although they find telepathy to be extraordinary, do not consider it ‘magic.’ Probably, most adults who believe in telepathy would be reluctant to label it magic as well. Perhaps, a way to assess whether Kim and Harris’s earlier findings apply in the psychological domain would be to look at
Jacqueline D. Woolley
wishing. Previous research from my laboratory has shown that children consider wishing to be a magical process (Woolley, Phelps, Davis, & Mandell, 1999). Researchers could present children with one informant who wishes to obtain something (e.g., wishes for a cookie, which instantly appears) and one who obtains an object in a more mundane way, like asking his friend for one. Would children who believe more strongly in wishing be more willing to learn from someone whose wishes appeared to come true? If so, one might want to solicit explanations to get a sense of why children would respond this way. Is it because they view the person as powerful or special, or because they see the person as similar to themselves in that they also believe in wishing, or for some other reason? I’ll end with one last puzzle: In both the present paper and in Kim and Harris (2014a), there were sizable individual differences in level of belief in extraordinary abilities; in the present paper, these were most evident among the older children and in Kim and Harris among the younger ones. These individual differences clearly have the potential to affect children’s learning in a range of domains. Where do these individual differences come from? What make one child more likely to believe in magic, to endorse telepathy, to make wishes, to have an imaginary friend? And is the child who believes in magic the same child who later believes in karma, or who later believes in miracles? Essentially, what makes one child credulous and another sceptical? I’m sceptical that the answer will be a simple one, but I’m certain that with continued research like this we’ll eventually figure it out.
References Kim, S., & Harris, P. L. (2014a). Belief in magic predicts children’s selective trust in informants. Journal of Cognition and Development, 15, 181–196. Kim, S., & Harris, P. L. (2014b). Children prefer to learn from mind-readers. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 32, 375–387. doi:10.1111/bjdp.12044 Woolley, J. D., Phelps, K. E., Davis, D. L., & Mandell, D. J. (1999). Where theories of mind meet magic: The development of children’s beliefs about wishing. Child Development, 70, 571–587. doi:10. 1111/1467-8624.00042 Received 21 July 2014