Publication Date


Degree Program

Department of Psychology

Degree Type

Education Specialist


The development of organized, explanatory systems of knowledge is an integral part of human nature; it allows us to categorize objects and events and to make predictions based on our experiences. In our society, the quest for answers to the questions "How?" and "Why?" begins early in life. By the preschool years, children are actively seeking and providing explanations for an abundance of physical and social events, and they are developing knowledge of causal forces at work in the environment (Bullock, Gelman, & Baillargeon, 1982; Rosengren & Hickling, 1999). Paradoxically, at about the same age at which children demonstrate they have a fundamental understanding of natural causal forces operating in the world, they are introduced by our culture to concepts and beliefs that seem to contradict their early theories. For example, children learn of popular superstitions (e.g., a four-leaf clover bringing good luck) that employ causal mechanisms outside the realm of natural laws governing the physical world. This concept raises the question of whether or not children with a fairly sophisticated understanding of normal causal forces believe in superstitions and, if so, how they reconcile these supernatural beliefs with their knowledge of natural causal relations. The aim of this study was to examine young children's understanding of superstitions. Children between the ages of 5 and 9 received a set of interview questions concerning their experiences with superstitions (e.g., "Do you know what a superstition is?"); their beliefs about the efficacy of superstitions (e.g., "Do superstitions always come true or just some of the time?"); and their knowledge of the mental and physical components of superstitions (e.g., "Do you have to believe it will come true for it to really happen?"). Participants also completed a belief task designed to assess the relative importance of belief and action in superstitions. The findings indicate developmental patterns in childrenn's awareness of superstitions and beliefs in efficacy of superstitions. With age, children demonstrated a significantly greater awareness of superstitions. In contrast, children demonstrated a significant decrease in beliefs in the efficacy of superstitions by the age of seven. Regarding children's perceptions of the necessary components of superstitions, there were important similarities in the developmental pattern of children's responses. Across all age groups, the action component of a superstition (as opposed to the belief component) was found to be the primary factor in the effectiveness of superstitions to "bring good luck." These findings are discussed in relation to children's beliefs about magic, wishing, and prayer, and the potential modes of cultural transmission of supernatural beliefs.


Education | Folklore | Psychology