Children as young as four believe in karma – good things happen to those who do good

Posted on September 15, 2017

Most of us can’t help but think in terms of karmic justice, intentions, fairness, and general mystical thinking – even the most scientifically trained among us will, for example, read meaning into a random coincidence at times.

Indeed, psychologists Banerjee and Bloom at Yale University have shown that children in the US as young as four years old are inclined to believe in, and actively seek, karmic justice, regardless of whether they come from a religious family or not. Children seem to find life events to be not just random occurrences, but instead a reward for previous good behavior – they essentially happen for an intended reason.

Designing experiments for children of such young age can be challenging, however Banerjee and Bloom were able to come up with three vignettes involving actions on the notion of karma.

For example, in the first of three experiments, 20 children aged four to six, tested alone, were told that a coin would be flipped, and if the coin randomly landed on the right side, they would receive a “super cool glow-in-the-dark water wiggle toy”. Before the coin was tossed, the child was given some stickers (allegedly to say thanks for taking part in the study) and he or she was told about two other kids who had done the same challenge: One of them gave his stickers away to needy children, because he thought this would increase his chances of winning the toy (karmic strategy); the other child threw her stickers in the trash, because in her opinion this would increase her chances of winning (trash strategy).

Each participating child was then asked which child from the vignette they thought was correct and he or she was given the chance to copy their actions. Overall, much more participants believed in the karmic strategy than in the trash strategy, and this bias was true across all cultural and religious backgrounds.

But where does this early belief in karma come from? And how come it’s not connected to religious beliefs?

Banerjee and Bloom think young children’s belief in cosmic karma is probably an extension of their early belief in social karma – the notion that if you do someone a favor, they are likely to reciprocate and do you a favor. Social karma is generally quite accurate and children are exposed to this notion from early on, which widely shapes their social relationships. The researchers conclude that children’s idea of karma is found across cultures because it capitalizes on these more general social notions, like social karma, which is found cross-culturally, no matter of religious background.

Category(s):Child Development

Source material from The British Psychological Society

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