Oftentimes, fairytales consist of unrealistic or fantastical events. Although children understand that fantastical fiction differs from reality, it is unclear how they interpret these unrealistic events. A study by Julia Van de Vondervoort and Ori Friedman (University of Waterloo) indicates that children, like adults, use the impossible events to infer general rules about the fantasy world that allow them to predict what will happen in the story.
In their first experiment, 78 children between the ages of 2 and 4 were randomly assigned to either watch the experimenter enact scenarios that demonstrate a rule or a control condition where no rule demonstration was given. In the demonstration condition, a cat behaved unrealistically by making the sound of the animal it was addressing instead of the expected "meow" sound. For example, the cat would address a sheep with "baa baa". The scenarios provided a fantasy rule that cats make the sound of the animal they are addressing. After children either received a rule demonstration or did not, they were asked to predict what sound the cat would make when it addressed a dog, a pig, a cow, and a snake. Children in the rule-demonstration condition were more likely to predict that the cat would make the sound of the animal being addressed than those in the no rule-demonstration condition. From this we can conclude that children are able to infer a fantasy rule and use it to predict future events.
The second experiment was designed to examine whether children formed a specific rule (i.e., that only cats make the sound of the animals they address) or a general rule (e.g., that all animals make the sound of the animals they address). 94 children were randomly assigned to two conditions. The first condition was identical to the rule-demonstration condition in the first experiment with the same questions asked afterwards regarding what sound a cat would make when addressing various other animals. The second condition was the same as the first condition except that following the demonstration, the children were asked to predict what sound a duck would make instead of a cat, when addressing the same four animals. What researchers observed was that children inferred the general rule that animals make the sound of the animals they addressed.
If parents are ever worried that reading fairy tales may confuse children by exposing them to events or entities that do not exist in reality, this study indicates that children can easily infer general rules about fantasy worlds that help them make sense of fiction.
Van de Vondervoort, J. W. & Friedman, O. (2014). Preschoolers can Infer General Rules Governing Fantastical Events in Fiction. Developmental Psychology, 50, 1594-1599.
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Post by Guneet Daid