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How Do We Explain the Unexplainable?

Adults are more likely to appeal to the supernatural than are children

Imagine the following scenario: A man, let’s call him Walter, works hard at his job every day, making barely enough money to survive, but still finds time to volunteer countless hours at the local animal shelter. He clearly loves animals and is selfless in his dedication to their welfare. One day as he's leaving the animal shelter and walking home, Walter stumbles upon a $100 bill on the sidewalk. There is no evidence of anyone around to whom it might belong.

How might you explain this sort of event? Or consider another, with a not so happy ending: A man named Doug, over a number of years, steals small amounts of money from his company. He eventually amasses enough money to buy a fancy car. On the first day of driving this new car Doug gets into an accident and the car is totaled.

Many theories of child development posit that young children are magical thinkers, and are thus prone to explain events by referring to magic, fantasy, and the supernatural. These sorts of child-like, irrational ways of explaining events are believed to be replaced, as we age, with scientific, rational forms of explanation.

In a study recently conducted in my lab Woolley, Cornelius, and Lacy, 2011, we presented adults and 6- to 12-year-old children with events like the ones above. They were all events that one might consider unusual or unexpected. Unlike expected or usual events (like, for example finding bread on the shelf when one goes shopping at the grocery store) unusual or unexpected events cry out for explanation: Why did this happen? How did this happen? Although the “How” question can often be answered with a straightforward physical answer (e.g., Doug was driving too fast), the “Why” question is trickier and often elicits a wide range of replies.

In a nutshell, what we found was quite surprising: Participants were MORE likely to use supernatural explanations for these sorts of events with age, rather than less likely. Specifically, adults spontaneously appealed to supernatural explanations more frequently than did children, and this tendency increased with age. Both the 6- and 8-year-olds seemed particularly driven to find a natural explanation for these events, even for ones adults seemed more comfortable explaining in supernatural terms. For example, one child spontaneously responded that a woman had suddenly recovered from a fatal illness “because.. she slept a lot” and another replied, regarding a very agile woman who tripped and fell at her wedding,” because she tripped over a rock.. People usually trip over stuff.” Older children and adults were more likely to refer to constructs such as God’s will or plan, karma, and luck to explain these sorts of phenomena. Supernatural explanations were generally more often provided for stories with positive (e.g., Walter finds the money) versus negative (Doug crashes his car) endings. This may be because people may not want to believe that negative events can be caused by forces outside their control, and would rather believe that people cause their own problems. This possibility, along with other questions (e.g., how do young children learn about luck?), is currently being addressed in our lab.