The effects of control and uncertainty on children's supernatural beliefs




Cornelius, Chelsea Ann

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Most people believe that the world is orderly and predictable, and one mechanism by which this belief is maintained is a sense of personal control, or the belief that one can predict and steer outcomes. Research indicates that when adults perceive a threat to their personal control, they will compensate for this threat by seeking other sources of control. However, it is unclear whether children also feel threatened by a lack of personal control or whether they seek similar sources of compensatory control as adults. The proposed studies investigated the process of compensatory control in children. A novel game primed children to feel either high personal control or low personal control in order to evaluate the extent to which children seek compensatory control via 1) the detection of visual patterns in random noise, 2) endorsement of superstitious explanations for events, and 3) explicit belief in supernatural sources of control. Children also completed a questionnaire designed to measure their intolerance of uncertainty. It was predicted that both the manipulation of control and individual differences in children’s willingness to tolerate uncertainty would affect compensatory control seeking behaviors. Results indicated that manipulation of personal control did not affect children’s pattern detection; however, the manipulation did affect children’s endorsement of karma-like explanations, such that children in the low-control condition were significantly more likely to endorse such explanations compared to children in the high-control condition. Regarding individual differences, results indicated a positive relationship between children’s intolerance of uncertainty and their explicit belief in God. These results are interpreted with regard to existing research with adults, and the implications for situational and dispositional motivations for control are discussed.




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