Do children understand God’s mind before they understand other people’s?

If you use a torch to show a three-year-old child that there is a red brick inside a dark box, they will mistakenly assume that everyone else, even without looking, also knows there is a red brick in the box. It’s only when they reach the age of about five that they realise other people need to see or be told about the brick to know that it is in there.

That same three-year-old will (appropriately, from a theological perspective) also assert that God knows there is a red brick in the box. Together with other observations, this has led some researchers to conclude that children start out with an understanding of what a god-like, all-knowing perspective is like, and that for several years they mistakenly apply this to other people.

But now Greek psychologists Nikos Makris and Dimitris Pnevmatikos have challenged this idea. They presented 120 Christian children aged between 3 and 7 years with a box that had something rattling around inside it, which they weren’t able to reach or see (7 children were earlier excluded because they didn’t know who God was). All the age groups correctly stated that another person wouldn’t know what was in the box either. In the case of the younger kids, this is simply because they were again assuming that other people’s perspective is the same as their own. Crucially, however, only children from about the age of five and up said that God would know what was in the box.

This turns everything on its head. Rather than having an understanding of a god-like perspective which they apply to everyone, the finding suggests three and four-year-olds have an inability to represent the perspective of other people, which in certain contexts, gives the false impression that they understand the idea of an all-knowing god-like mind. Actually, this study shows it’s only when they get older, as they begin to understand the perspective of other people, that they also start to truly understand the idea of a supernatural, all-knowing mind.

Makris, N. & Pnevmatikos, D. (2007). Children’s understanding of human and supernatural mind. Cognitive Development, 22, 365-375.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

3 thoughts on “Do children understand God’s mind before they understand other people’s?”

  1. This is a terrible article. How is everything turned on its head when this is an obvious conclusion that these same 5 year-olds could have figured out.

  2. Things get only turned on their head for a blogger who’s making the mistake of taking a speculation in the discussion section of a paper as its actual conclusions.Unfortunately this is something journalists and, as a result, much of the public is prone, too…

  3. I quote from the original article:“The present study was inspired by Barrett et al.’s (2001) suggestion that children are able to represent God’s mental properties before they acquire the representational understanding of the human mind”Then in light of the new findings:“…we claim that it is only when the representational understanding of human mind becomes stable and robust that children generate an understanding of a super-natural mind. Before that time, children seem to have only one way of understanding the representational properties of mind, human or super-natural, and that is an anthropocentric one”. It’s possible to imagine that young children may be equipped to understand the notion of an all-knowing mind, before they are able to understand the notion of other human minds with limited knowledge, like their own. Some research has supported this account. The new study rejects this account.

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