What is it about?

The paper presents research with children in London and Madrid on their ideas and reasoning about the beliefs of humans, animals, and supernatural beings including God, using a simple and well-known psychological experimental known as the 'Smarties test'. In this test, children are presented a Smarties tube and shown that it contains rocks rather than Smarties. The experiment tests so-called 'false beliefs' because children are then asked whether others - who are not privy to the information about its actual content - would 'falsely' believe Smarties were inside the tube. Children in both locations attributed false beliefs to humans (their mother, friend and teacher), but less so to animals (dog, bear, and ladybird) and least to supernatural beings (superman, fairy, and especially God). There are some location differences. In London, fewer children in London attributed false beliefs to animals, which might be due to their experiences with those 'agents', while more Muslim children believed that God would 'know' rocks were in the tube, and the level of religious belief and practice was associated with this belief. More Spanish (compared to British) children attributed false belief to God and this might be a facet of a more 'anthropomorphic' concept (attributing human qualities to nonhumans) of God in Catholicism.

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Why is it important?

Children's ideas of what 'others' (be they humans or nonhumans) 'are like' reflect their growing concepts about the abilities/limitations and intentions/motivations of other people and creatures as well as their culture-specific experiences (such as education or exposure to nature) with them. Their ideas and beliefs about human others are known to contribute to their increasingly complex social interactions. Ideas about nonhuman others reflect and contribute to their understanding of fact versus fiction, belief systems and reliance on first-hand evidence versus second-hand testimonies, among other things. The cross-national variations can reflect how different cultures, customs and practices may influence these ideas in children differently.


As a piece of research that applied a simple method across two countries, this has revealed fascinating trends and variations among children's beliefs. The findings have implications for not just theories and academics, but also educators, school counsellors, and faith and pastoral leaders. Children's responses tell us about what they think others 'are like', those others being human and nonhuman, and what may be the reasoning behind such beliefs, including their backgrounds (faith and culture) and how their ideas develop during formative years.

Dr Virginia L Lam
University of Roehampton

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Animals, Superman, Fairy and God: Children’s Attributions of Nonhuman Agent Beliefs in Madrid and London, Journal of Cognition and Culture, May 2020, Brill, DOI: 10.1163/15685373-12340074.
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