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Magical thinking in judgments of causation : can anomalous phenomena affect ontological causal beliefs in children and adults?

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>03/2004
<mark>Journal</mark>British Journal of Developmental Psychology
Issue number1
Number of pages30
Pages (from-to)123-152
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


In four experiments, 4-, 5-, 6- and 9-year-old children and adults were tested on the entrenchment of their magical beliefs and their beliefs in the universal power of physical causality. In Experiment 1, even 4-year-olds showed some understanding of the difference between ordinary and anomalous (magical) causal events, but only 6-year-olds and older participants denied that magic could occur in real life. When shown an anomalous causal event (a transformation of a physical object in an apparently empty box after a magic spell was cast on the box), 4- and 6-year-olds accepted magical explanations of the event, whereas 9-year-olds and adults did not. In Experiment 2, the same patterns of behaviour as above were shown by 6- and 9-year-olds who demonstrated an understanding of the difference between genuine magical events and similarly looking tricks. Testing the entrenchment of magical beliefs in this experiment showed that 5-year-olds tended to retain their magical explanations of the anomalous event, even after the mechanism of the trick had been explained to them, whereas 6-and 9-year-olds did not. In Experiment 3, adult participants refused to accept magical explanations of the anomalous event and interpreted it as a trick or an illusion, even after this event was repeated 4 times. Yet, when in Experiment 4 similar anomalous causal events were demonstrated without reference to magic, most adults acknowledged, both in their verbal judgments and in their actions, that the anomalous effects were not a fiction but had really occurred. The data of this study suggest that in the modern industrialized world, magical beliefs persist but are disguised to fit the dominant scientific paradigm.