Thinking About What is Not the Case

Paul L. Harris
Published Online:
27 Sep 2007
Volume/Issue No:
Volume 28 Issue 5

Additional Options

It is usually assumed that when children set reality aside, and start to use their imagination, they think in an associative or undisciplined fashion. Contrary to this view, endorsed by Piaget and Freud alike, I argue that children often use their imagination in a consequential and logical fashion. First, children can work out the causal consequence of make‐believe transformations. For example, having seen a toy animal doused with make‐believe liquid, 2‐year‐olds realise the make‐believe consequences: they pretend to dry the animal or describe it as “wet”. Second, when presented with premises that run counter to their empirical knowledge (e.g., “All cats bark”) preschool children can make appropriate deductions from such premises provided they are prompted to adopt a make‐believe stance toward them. Third, despite knowing that a given belief or conclusion about reality is false, 4‐ and 5‐year‐olds recognise that it may be entertained and acted on by someone who is mistaken. Nevertheless, some children do occasionally fit the more traditional description of children's imagination: asked to imagine what they know to be false (e.g., that there is a rabbit or a fairy inside a box), they begin to wonder whether it might be true after all, and open the box to check.

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