Doing what you’re told: how ritual behaviour and beliefs can be inherited

Doing what you’re told: how ritual behaviour and beliefs can be inherited April 12, 2009

Jesse Bering wrote recently of how children soak up the opinions of those that they regard as reliable, and treat them as fact. He was talking about the work of Paul Harris at Harvard and Melissa Koenig at the University of Minnesota, but it put me in mind of another experiment on imitation that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while, but never got round to.

First the paper on imitation. Now you might think that human infants, being smarter than chimpanzee infants, would be much more willing to figure things out for themselves and not just blindly copy what they’re shown. In fact, the opposite is true.

This fact has been known for a long time, and was widely assumed to be a social effect – young kids just wanting to please adults. What Frank Keil (Yale University) showed was that in fact it’s because they genuinely believe that what they are copying is essential to the task at hand – even if it seems ridiculous.

What they did was set up simple puzzles, like the one pictured. Then they showed the kids how to open it, using a mix of relevant actions and irrelevant, ‘magical’ ones (like pushing the rod with a wand, rather than pulling it out with their hand).

Not only did they copy the adults faithfully, but they persisted even when they were told that some of the actions were irrelevant, and even after they thought the experiment was over. In fact, the only thing that could shake their conviction was physically separating the magical action from the puzzle box (young kids have a built-in predisposition to think that causally connected objects must be physically connected).

What Keil concludes is that children have built-in tendency to assume that whatever adults do must be sensible and necessary, even if they can’t figure out why. This probably is down to the fact that kids have to survive in an enormously complex human culture, in which things are often done for reasons that are not readily apparent.

But the consequence is that, once aberrant behaviour creeps in (perhaps in a manner similar to that of Skinner’s pigeons), it can be incredibly difficult to shake.

So what of Harris’ study? Well, what he showed was that young kids are able to estimate the reliability of adults as informants. What’s more, they then are highly likely to believe what these trusted adults tell them.

What these results mean is that the religious beliefs and behaviours of kids (and possibly adults) are a lot more to do with culture and a lot less to do with some kind of innate psychological predisposition that is often claimed.

In a later paper, Harris takes aim at the idea that we a ‘born to believe’. Although he concedes that there is some evidence for this, he thinks that the power of testimony in forging the world-view of even the very young has been underestimated.

Lyons, D., Young, A., & Keil, F. (2007). The hidden structure of overimitation Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (50), 19751-19756 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0704452104

Koenig, M., Clement, F., & Harris, P. (2004). Trust in Testimony. Children’s Use of True and False Statements Psychological Science, 15 (10), 694-698 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00742.x

Harris, P., & Koenig, M. (2006). Trust in Testimony: How Children Learn About Science and Religion Child Development, 77 (3), 505-524 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00886.x

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