Science on Religion

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Children prefer the supernatural

Child with ghostChildren (and many adults) enjoy the idea of the supernatural: from wizards to Jedi to witches in Oz, children are fascinated by the idea of human beings possessing supernatural powers. Consequently, it may not be surprising if they want to encounter these kind of supernatural humans in real life. Research by Sunae Kim (Ludwig Maximilian University, Germany) and Paul Harris (Harvard University) suggests that when children can distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary information gathering, they prefer the person who has extraordinary or supernatural access to the human mind.

Previous research has indicated that children as young as preschoolers can recognize that thoughts and feelings are private and unknowable unless revealed explicitly. This generally occurs between children ages three and four. When children reach the ages between four and six, they also recognize that the feelings that one displays outwardly need not be the feelings one has inwardly. At approximately age 5, children begin to understand that beings with supernatural powers may have the ability to do things ordinary humans cannot, such as read minds. As such, young children can distinguish between everyday reading someone's facial expressions and emotions, and having supernatural access to someone else's mind.

Knowing this background literature, the researchers predicted that older children would be more likely than younger to distinguish between natural and supernatural readings of human thoughts, and also that they would prefer someone who can read minds over an ordinary person, even when it comes to general information. In other words, from a child's perspective, does the ability to read minds make a person in general more credible? The researchers hypothesized yes.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited 22 children aged 3 to 4 years old and 21 children aged 5 to 6 years old. They tested each child individually in a separate room. Each child would watch a video of someone displaying supernatural mind reading abilities. In this video, two people meet for the very first time and one person must guess what the other person is thinking. In one video clip, the person does not know; they must ask for help in discerning what this other person is thinking about. In another clip, the person simply knows what the other person is thinking. Over a series of clips, the mind reader will know what a person thinks about animals, numbers, plants, and other items. Upon finishing the video, the researchers ask each child two critical questions: first, did one of the people in the video know in ordinary way as everyone else or in a special way, and second, if the child thinks a person had special powers, were such powers real or just a trick? The researchers also asked whether each child which of the two people in the video they would prefer to learn from.

As predicted, while all the children recognize that the regular person had to communicate to understand what the other person was thinking, the younger children did not realize that the person displaying supernatural mind reading was in fact doing something supernatural. Since only the older children realized something supernatural was occurring, they preferred to learn from this person with supernatural power. That said, the critical difference between preferring or not preferring to learn from the supernaturally gifted person rested not with age but with the ability to differentiate between someone possessing supernatural abilities and someone who does not. When children could make this differentiation, they chose the supernaturally gifted person over the ordinary person to a statistically significant degree.

Perhaps not surprisingly, children prefer to learn from someone with supernatural abilities rather than someone with merely ordinary abilities given the fact that they can distinguish between the two. This admiration for those in touch with the supernatural has implications yet to be explored. If the prevalence of religion in adults is any indication, there is a lot of work left to do.

For more, see “Children prefer to learn from mind-readers” in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.


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