Even the most scientifically trained among us have an instinct for mystical thinking – seeing purpose in nature, for example, or reading meaning in random coincidences. Psychologists think this is to do with the way our minds work at a fundamental level. We have evolved to be highly attuned to concepts relevant to our social lives, things like intentions and fairness. And we just can’t switch off this way of thinking, even when we’re contemplating the physical world.
This may explain the intuitive appeal of the Buddhist and Hindu notion of karmic justice – the idea, essentially, that you get what you deserve in life; that the cosmos rewards those who do good (variations of this idea are also spread by other religions). Indeed, in a new paper in Developmental Science, psychologists at Yale University have shown that children in the US as young as four are inclined to believe in, and actively seek, karmic justice, regardless of whether they come from a religious family or not.
“We conclude that, beginning early in development, children expect that life events are not purely random occurrences, but instead that they happen for an intended reason, such as rewarding people for their good behaviour,” said the study authors Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom.
In one experiment, 20 children aged four to six, tested alone, were told that if a completely random coin shake landed the right way up they would get a super cool glow-in-the-dark water wiggle toy. Then they were given some stickers to say thanks for taking part. Before the coin was shaken, they were told about two other kids doing the same challenge, one of whom gave his stickers away to needy children because he thought this would increase his chances of winning the toy; the other child threw her stickers in the bin because she thought this would increase her winning chances. Each participant was asked which child they thought was correct, and then they were given the chance to copy their actions (there was a donation box and a bin in the testing room).
Overall, the participating children expressed a belief in the karmic strategy (giving stickers away to needy children would boost their own chances of winning the toy), certainly much more than they believed in the rubbish bin strategy. Moreover, of the 45 per cent of the kids who tried out a strategy for themselves, nearly all of them tried the karmic strategy (only one child tried the rubbish bin strategy). This bias for believing in karma was true regardless of whether the children were from a religious family or not.
In a second experiment, 40 more children (aged five to six) were shown cartoon vignettes about other children trying to achieve something (e.g. a girl trying to find her lost puppy), and who used different strategies to boost their chances, either involving karmic bargaining (e.g. being friendly to a new girl at school), or a non-karmic strategy (e.g. making her hair shorter).
For each vignette, two different fictional characters gave their opposing verdicts on the likely effectiveness of the karmic strategy. For instance one character said that being friendly to a new girl would help find the puppy because if you do something nice, it helps something nice happen to you. The other character was sceptical – yes, it is nice to do something kind for someone else but that doesn’t help make some unrelated good thing happen to you.
The participating children were asked which character they thought was right and they far more often endorsed the character who was in favour of the effectiveness of the karmic strategy. A further control condition showed this wasn’t simply because of a generic bias for causal explanations (where any one thing is said to cause another), but was specifically for karma-related causal strategies where doing something nice increases the odds of an unrelated favourable outcome occurring for oneself. Again, the children’s belief in karma was unrelated to whether they came from a religious background or not.
One final experimental with four- to six-year-old kids clarified things a little further, showing that young children tend to have a rather “diffuse” notion of karma – that is, they think the odds of something nice happening to them is increased not only by their doing something nice themselves, but also by someone else doing good in the world.
Banerjee and Bloom think young children’s belief in cosmic karma is probably an extension of their early belief in social karma – the generally accurate notion that if you do someone a favour, they are likely to reciprocate in due course. In other words, it’s another example of the way that we “overextend inferences and expectations from the social domain to the non-social domain” (similar to how we so readily attribute meaning and purpose to the inanimate world, such as thinking that trees make oxygen so that animals can breathe).
The researchers added: “Taken together, our findings support the view that notions of karma may be so cross-culturally successful because they capitalise on certain more generally social-cognitive propensities and heuristics for navigating our social relationships that are present and active early in development.”