Sure, it’s unlikely that a girl would ride a hippo or that a boy would drink onion juice, but as adults, we know that it’s not impossible. However, and in contrast to adults’ reasoning, for some time researchers have noticed a “striking phenomenon” (to quote the authors of a new paper) in young children’s thinking – that is, up to around the age of eight, they frequently assume that improbable events are actually impossible. In their paper in Developmental Psychology, Celina Bowman-Smith at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues have investigated whether asking children to consider the possibility of hypothetical events in a distant, far away country might help them to overcome this closed-minded thinking and realise that improbable doesn’t mean impossible.
One theory for why children think the improbable is impossible is that they call to mind relevant knowledge and experience and if they’ve never heard of what is being proposed – such as a girl riding a hippo, or a boy drinking onion juice – then they conclude such a thing cannot happen.
Bowman-Smith and her team figured that asking children to consider the possibility of improbable scenarios in far-away lands might help them break free of this reasoning strategy, to think beyond their own experiences and be more open-minded. Certainly the approach works for adults, who rate improbable events as more likely when they consider them in the context of distant lands.
Across three studies, 300 Canadian children aged between five and seven years stated whether various scenarios were possible, including improbable ones (other examples included that a girl had a pet zebra or that a person could have a beard growing all the way to the ground), truly impossible ones (e.g. a person grew wings; a girl rode a dragon), or ordinary ones (e.g. a person could have a pet dog). Some of the children were asked to consider the possibility of the scenarios in their own country of Canada, others in “a country very far away”, and for others the location was not specified.
There were age differences in the children’s answers. The younger participants were more inclined to say that improbable events were impossible (for instance, they claimed this was the case for around 80 per cent of the improbable events in an unspecified location, on average, compared with a 50 per cent figure for the older kids).
Location also made a difference. Both younger and older children increased their acknowledgement of the possibility of improbable events when they were considering them in the context of a far-away land. This distance effect was larger for the older children – they were up to 23 per cent more likely to say improbable events were possible in a far away place (compared with an increase of up to 17 per cent in the younger children).
Another age effect interacted with location, such that older children tended to say improbable events were less likely to occur in Canada than in an unspecified location, whereas younger children’s estimates did not vary between Canada and the unspecified location, thus suggesting older children were extra conservative in judging what can happen at home.
“[T]hinking about distant lands is not a panacea for improving children’s reasoning about physical possibility,” the researchers said. “Nonetheless, the efficacy of this manipulation relative to other manipulations [explored in prior research, such as asking children to visualise improbable events happening] suggests that broadening the context in which children construe events may be a promising method for helping overcome their skepticism about the possibility of extraordinary events.”