According to a series of three studies published in the journal Child Development, children’s beliefs about what is possible differ across dreams, stories and reality.
“There are two findings we’re building on here. The first is that young children usually say that strange and unlikely events, like having a pet peacock or drinking onion juice, aren’t possible. Which is curious, because by adulthood people usually say that these things are fully possible,” explained study author Brandon Goulding, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.
“The second is that young children are surprisingly realistic in their thinking, even when reasoning about fantastical worlds and events. They think that totally normal things should happen in magical stories – where anything could happen – and that magical, impossible events should have totally normal explanations. Some researchers have called them ‘reality-bound’, and there’s quite a lot of work to back up this depiction of children, even if it goes against the common portrayal of children as having wild imaginations.”
According to some researchers, children’s ‘reality-bound’ thinking results from their need to identify how something might happen in real life before they can confirm its possibility, or imagine this situation unfolding in their mind. “We wanted to kind of push this ‘reality-bound’ idea to its limits by leveraging the work on children’s beliefs about possibility. Children usually say that strange and unlikely things can’t happen, but would they also say that these things can’t happen in a totally fantastical world, like a dream or a story?”
A total of 469 children aged 4 to 7 were recruited from largely middle-class families living in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario. Children heard event descriptions that were accompanied with a related photo. Across the three experiments, children were asked whether different events, including improbable (e.g., having a pet peacock), physically impossible (e.g., walking through a brick wall), and logically impossible (e.g., drawing a circle that’s also a square) events could occur in a dream, in a story, or real-life.
The studies produced three main results. “Children do think that strange and unlikely things can happen in dreams—which means their minds aren’t entirely ‘reality-bound’. But their judgments are still very tied to reality. For the most part, they don’t think that impossible events can happen in dreams, and they aren’t even sure that unlikely things can happen in stories,” Goulding told PsyPost.
The researchers also found that children were always more likely to endorse that unlikely things were possible compared to impossible things, even when this was in the context of dreams or stories.
“There are some aspects of the real world that pervade children’s thinking that they can’t fully shake off when thinking about fantastical, unrealistic things—even if they’re not entirely ‘reality-bound’,” explained Goulding.
Children also endorsed that impossible things could happen if they were things that usually occur in dreams or stories.
“For example, children often said that a person couldn’t have an invisible dog, but they mostly said that a person could meet a talking squirrel,” elaborated Goulding. “A talking animal is way more typical of stories than an invisible one, but one isn’t actually ‘more possible’ than the other. And this was the coolest finding, for me. It suggests that children probably rely on their knowledge of what usually happens in these worlds to decide what can happen within them, rather than doing something else like thinking about how these things might happen in a dream.”
The study authors found evidence that when children consider possibilities in fantasy worlds, they do not simply import their knowledge about reality to the fantastical realm nor do they believe absolutely anything could occur.
“They’re somewhere in the middle,” said Goulding. “But I don’t know how they got there – yet. The findings don’t suggest that their reasoning stems from thinking about how things might happen, so they’re probably doing something else.”
As for future research questions, he asks, “What changes between childhood and adulthood? We didn’t test adults, but there’s definitely a really interesting developmental shift here that needs to be explained. We know that from previous work, and future work will have to tap into the nature of this developmental shift, and the reasons for it.”
The study, “Children’s Beliefs About Possibility Differ Across Dreams, Stories, and Reality”, was authored by Brandon W. Goulding and Ori Friedman.