Yale psychologists have come to a new conclusion about the way children tackle an old question: Does everything happen for a reason?
According to the study, published Oct. 18 online and forthcoming in the journal Child Development, young children prefer purpose-based explanations of life events, indicating a proclivity toward seeking meaning in both the social and natural worlds. The researchers, from the Yale Mind and Development Lab, gave five-to-10-year-olds the same scenarios with differing interpretations, and asked the children which they preferred. A vast majority of the children found interpretations that pointed to a higher design preferable, although older children were less likely to demonstrate the preference.
“We started off with a broad interest in [why] so many people seem to believe that everything happens for a reason,” said Konika Banerjee GRD ’16, lead author of the study and a researcher with the Yale Mind and Development Lab. “We were really interested in figuring out where this type of belief comes from.”
The researchers conducted three experiments across different age groups: five-to-seven-year-olds, eight-to-10-year-olds and adults. Those in the youngest age group preferred event interpretations that gave the situation design and intention. “Brianna’s pet puppy ran away from home” was one of the 10 test trial events researchers posed to the children and adults. “Because Brianna left the front door open” was the non-teleological explanation; “Because it was meant to teach Brianna that looking after a pet is a big responsibility” was the teleological explanation. The majority of children preferred event interpretations that proposed a deeper meaning in addition to the event’s natural material cause over interpretations that solely spoke to natural causes. That is, purposeful explanations were more appealing to the children.
Deena Weisberg, senior fellow and lab director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Cognition & Development Lab, cited this “bias for explanation that references an ultimate goal or purpose,” as one of two important findings from the study. She also underscored the significance of Banerjee and psychology professor Paul Bloom’s finding that this preference decreased in the older participants.
Past research has shown that children assign meaning to the world around them to such a degree that they will think, for instance, that a mountain is there for climbing, or a tree there for oxygen. Adults assign similar meaning to events in their lives, albeit on a less extreme scale, according to other research — including a recent study from Banerjee and Bloom.
While past research has focused on children’s beliefs about purpose and design in nature, this was the first to see if that teleological thinking extended to life events.
“[The presence of teleological thinking] has been demonstrated in other places and with other types of phenomena, but this is the first time it has been demonstrated for events,” Weisberg said.
Banerjee said that research has shown that both theist and — to a lesser degree — atheist adults believe in a deeper reason or plan, indicating that a tendency for teleological explanations of the world — seeking meaning — is not contingent on belief in a divine power.
Through an increasing number of studies on why humans believe what they believe, Banerjee and Bloom have explored the theory that there is a social-cognitive bias to see the world in terms of agency, purpose and design. Humans want to understand their peers’ minds and behavioral motivations, they suggest. But that desire also extends into non-human spheres, and particularly so for children.
The study has important religious and cross-cultural connections, researchers said.
“The findings converge with a growing body of research indicating that, from early on, we have cognitive tendencies that provide fertile ground for religious ideas,” Boston University psychology professor and director of the school’s Child Cognition Lab Deborah Kelemen said. “Not only do we possess biases that naturally support beliefs in creation, gods, spirits and eternity but these results suggest we are also disposed to believe in fate and karma.”
She added that one of the downsides of the human tendency to operate within this framework is that it may lead people to unfairly judge others for life events they cannot control. If everything happens for a reason, she said, then there are no accidents — people experience tragedy because it is “meant to be” and perhaps even because they deserve it.
“It may promote some unfortunate and unpleasant social attitudes,” Kelemen said.
The study was partially funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.