What do children think about magical objects?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    From a young age, children reason about “causal”, or cause and effect relationships in order to learn about the world around them (e.g. flipping a switch turns on a light). However, some events, such as those that involve magic, may break causal laws about how the world works (e.g. making an object float in midair). Children’s beliefs abut magic and judgments of magical events can help us to explore their understanding of the real world.

    In this study, children (ages 4-6) will see pictures and hear stories about characters attempting to perform magical events (e.g. making an object disappear). In some of the stories, the character will use magical objects, such as a wand or a cape, and in others, the characters will not use magical objects. Children will hear the beginning of each story and then will be invited to predict the outcome. Finally, we will tell children about some improbable and impossible scenarios (e.g. going backward in time, eating pickle flavored ice cream), and ask if they think these scenarios can actually happen. We are interested in exploring whether children predict different outcomes for the stories that include magical objects.

    We believe children will predict that the events featuring magical objects are more likely to happen than the events that do not feature magical objects. Children’s beliefs about the role of objects in magical events demonstrate how they understand cause and effect relationships in the real world as well as the boundaries of causal laws.

    This research is being conducted in Living Laboratory at the Museum of Science by psychology researchers from the Boston University Social Learning Lab .

        » Social Learning Lab at Boston University

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Floating and Sinking

    On the 2nd floor of the Discovery Center, find the Air Table. Try placing a ping pong ball above one of the blowers, and watch it float in the air. Ask your child to describe why she thinks the ball is floating. What type of language does s/he use? Does s/he believe the ball is floating due to magic, or the air coming out of the blower? Encourage your child to feel the air coming out of the other pipe. Does this change your child’s beliefs about the “cause” of the floating ball?

    Activities to Try at Home

    What Does This Button Do?

    Every activity you do with your child – whether playing, reading, cooking or cleaning – is an opportunity to explore cause and effect. Some causal relationships are more concretely connected, like pushing a button on a television set, and seeing the display turn on (the “cause” is attached to the effect). However, some causal relationships may be more abstract or seemingly more distantly related, such as pressing a button on a remote and seeing a TV display turn on (the “cause” is physically separated from the effect). Ask your child what s/he thinks will happen when she presses a button on the TV set versus on a remote. Does s/he predict the button and the remote will have the same effect? Ask your child why s/he thinks these events happened. Does s/he think that the causal relationships are the same, or different from one another? What language does s/he use to describe each relationship?

Research Spotlight

Contact Living Laboratory staff:

livinglaboratory@mos.org