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Cognition. 2016 Jul;152:127-140. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.03.022. Epub 2016 Apr 6.

Children's imagination and belief: Prone to flights of fancy or grounded in reality?

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Vanderbilt University, United States. Electronic address:
Harvard University, United States.
New York University, United States.


Children ranging from 4 to 8years (n=39) reported whether they could imagine various improbable phenomena (e.g., a person making onion juice) as well as various impossible phenomena (e.g., a person turning an onion into a banana) and then described what they imagined. In their descriptions, children mentioned ordinary causes much more often than extraordinary causes. Descriptions of such ordinary causes were provided more often in relation to improbable (rather than impossible) phenomena. Following these imaginative efforts, children judged if each phenomenon could really happen. To check whether these reality judgments were affected by children's attempts to imagine, a control group (n=39) made identical reality judgments but were not first prompted to imagine each phenomenon. Children across the age range judged that impossible phenomena cannot really happen but, with increasing age, judged that improbable phenomena can happen. This pattern emerged in both the imagination and control groups; thus simply prompting children to imagine did not alter their reality judgments. However, within the imagination group, judgments that phenomena can really happen were associated with children's claims to have successfully imagined the phenomena and with certain characteristics of their descriptions: imagining ordinary causes and imagining phenomena obtain. Results highlight close links between imagination and reality judgments in childhood. Contrary to the notion that young children have a rich imagination that readily defies reality, results indicate that their imagination is grounded in reality, as are their beliefs.


Belief; Counterintuitive concepts; Imagination; Reality bias

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