The Naturalness of the Supernatural: Children’s Understanding of Intentional Agents

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Past research has demonstrated that children acquire an understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, and intentions of other human and non-human minds through cognitive mechanisms that develop early in childhood. Although it is generally accepted that young children cultivate a general “theory of mind,” the age and nature in which this ability develops is an area of continued dialogue. This researcher examined the manner that children come to understand other intentional agents in a sample of 3- to 7-year-olds from China and Ecuador. This researcher examined two theories: the anthropomorphism and preparedness hypotheses. Children participated in several experimental tasks examining the attribution of limitations on perception, knowledge, memory, and mortality, and were asked about their understanding of the capabilities of animal, human, and superhuman minds. This researcher developed two indices (an anthropomorphism index and an egocentrism index) to examine whether children reason about other agents as they would other humans, or themselves. The results of this examination provide evidence that children are flexibly receptive to a wide range of intentional agents and demonstrate a tendency to attribute super-abilities to all agents at the youngest ages and apply limitations to less-capable agents at older ages. Cultural differences were observed with Chinese children utilizing anthropomorphic reasoning less frequently than Ecuadorian children. These findings support that young children need not reason about other agents as they would themselves (egocentrism), or other human beings (anthropomorphism); rather, young children are cognitively flexible and capable of reasoning about, and differentiating among, the abilities of a wide variety of minds.

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology (PhD)

First Advisor

Barrett, Justin L.

Document Type





Child development, Cognition in children, Child psychology




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