Scepticism and Credulity in Childhood

Hatton, Karen. 2013. Scepticism and Credulity in Childhood. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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The current thesis aimed to evaluate and extend research into children’s interpretation of violations of physical laws of causality. A central question of this thesis was: what factors might govern children’s scepticism versus credulity with respect to magical causality? Specifically, why are some children more easily fooled than others? Study 1 provided evidence of age differences in children’s beliefs with respect to mental- physical causality. Older children (11-12-year-olds) were more sceptical about the efficacy of wishing than younger children (4-5 and 6-7-year-olds). Moreover, older children were less likely than younger children to claim that mental processes can directly affect the physical world. Subsequent studies in the thesis focused on various factors that might contribute to individual differences in children’s interpretation of a conjuring trick (i.e. an event that ostensibly involved a violation of object permanence). Study 2 found that 4-6-year-olds made a distinction between real magic and tricks, but that direct social influence in the form of repetitive questioning influenced children’s offered verbal causal explanations. In contrast, Study 3 found that the majority of 9-11-year-olds interpreted the demonstration as a trick, had a clear understanding of conjuring as trickery and were less likely to conform to experimenter pressure in the form of repetitive questioning. Study 4 results suggested that 4-6-year-old children’s verbal responses are a true representation of beliefs as evidenced by verbal judgments correlating with behavioural reactions. However, an indirect social influence in the form of a visual clue that hinted at trickery influenced level of verbal scepticism. Furthermore, children’s level of social confidence was linked to their level of active exploration. The final two studies in the thesis offered support for individual differences in children’s responses that may be related to theory of mind ability. Study 5 found a link between 4-6-year-olds’ level of advanced theory of mind and responses, as well as an age-related increase in scepticism. Study 6 found a link between 5-71⁄2-year-olds’ first-order theory of mind and understanding of trickery that was not affected by age. It was, therefore, concluded that young children’s acknowledgement of trickery and level of scepticism about magical events is not characterized by a simple age-related developmental influence. Importantly, socio-cognitive skills may play a role.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)


scepticism, childhood, causality, magic

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Date Deposited:

28 Jun 2013 09:24

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 11:20


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