Many readers of this blog will have heard of Jean Piaget, who did pioneering research on psychological development in children. Piaget devised a set of experiments to demonstrate that children think in a radically different way from adults. One of these studies concerned animism, which is the mistaken belief that inanimate objects are alive. Piaget showed children pictures of lifeless objects such as clouds, bicycles, etc, and found that below the age of seven or eight years, many children sincerely believed that some of these objects were alive. The explanation for this is laborious, but in essence, it seems that children will look at one attribute of being alive, such as being capable of movement, and assume that other objects that move (e.g., clouds move across the sky, bicycles move when pedalled) must also be alive. The children’s mistake is of course that more attributes need to be present for something to be defined as being alive. So not only must it move, but also be capable of reproduction, breath, show irritability (e.g., respond to being touched) etc. Around the age of eight, children wise up to this, and from then on they give far more accurate answers to Piaget’s test.

I think it may be safely said that this is one of the less surprising findings from developmental psychology, and I would not mention it except for one thing. It was always assumed that after the age of eight, nobody exhibited animism for the rest of their lives (swearing at your computer/car/photocopier as if it’s alive when it’s on the fritz doesn’t count, I’m afraid). About twenty years ago, a doctoral student of mine decided she would see if this held true for older people. I told her, with my magisterial experience, that of course they would get the test right, but if she wanted to run the test at the end of an experimental session, then why not? So, my student did the test – and found that some older people got the same animism scores as the under-eights in Piaget’s original study. What is more, when asked for their reasons for their answers, they gave the same type of answers as the children in Piaget’s study. As I told my student when she presented me with these results, it was a good job that I’d persuaded her to do the study in spite of her initial scepticism.

Now you might reasonably ask who these older people were. If we had chosen to test older adults in a care home and/or with dementia, the results can be easily explained as part of general cognitive decline. But that was not the case. These people were of above-average intelligence, living independently in the community, and had no trace whatsoever of dementia. So why are they doing this?

The simple answer is that as we get older, in a lot of cases we deliberately or tacitly adopt a ‘non-intellectual’ lifestyle. We stop being so obsessed with keeping up with advances in the sciences and the arts, and go for a less intellectually demanding life (something has to explain the popularity of all those dumbed down TV programs). It’s not that people are less intelligent, but rather that they use their intelligence in other ways.  When we analysed the results further, we found that level of intelligence did not predict the level of animism a person had, but their engagement in intellectually demanding hobbies did.

Furthermore, this is not just a phenomenon of old age. A few years after this initial study, we examined the performance of middle-aged people on the same animism test, and found the same results. In other words, a sizeable proportion of the middle aged adult population held animistic beliefs, and this was explained not by their level of intelligence, but their level of engagement in an intellectually demanding lifestyle.

The long-term implications of this are not known. But one thing is clear – an awful lot of adults have at least one facet of their thoughts that is at serious odds with reality.

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