How do you work out what is fact and what is fiction?

true-falseLearning how to work out what is fact and what is fiction is all part of growing up, and so a 4 year old who believes Santa Claus is real is cute. If however a grown adult was seriously asserting that Santa Claus was quite real then we would be quite rightly concerned because clearly something has gone wrong. One illustration of a disruptive factor involves religion, and so in that context there is an interesting study that came out last year that illustrates how exposure to religion can often cause a considerable degree of confusion in some minds.

The paper, entitled “Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds”, was published here in Cognitive Science, and the abstract reads …

In two studies, 5- and 6-year-old children were questioned about the status of the protagonist embedded in three different types of stories. In realistic stories that only included ordinary events, all children, irrespective of family background and schooling, claimed that the protagonist was a real person. In religious stories that included ordinarily impossible events brought about by divine intervention, claims about the status of the protagonist varied sharply with exposure to religion. Children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, judged the protagonist in religious stories to be a real person, whereas secular children with no such exposure to religion judged the protagonist in religious stories to be fictional. Children’s upbringing was also related to their judgment about the protagonist in fantastical stories that included ordinarily impossible events whether brought about by magic (Study 1) or without reference to magic (Study 2). Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional. The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.

OK, so let’s take a slightly closer look here, because this is all rather interesting.

So what exactly did they do?

There were in fact two studies, but basically they presented 5-6 years olds with three types of stories and asked they to categorise it. Here is an actual sample of one that they used …


This is Jonah. After disobeying God’s orders, Jonah was thrown overboard a ship and then swallowed by a large whale. Jonah prayed to God for three days, and was spit out by the whale safe and sound. As a result, Jonah promises to obey God’s orders in the future.

This is Jonah. Jonah took a trip on a boat. One stormy night, Jonah was thrown overboard a ship and then swallowed by a large whale. But Jonah had magical powers, and he was able to jump out of the whale’s mouth and swim all the way to the shore.

This is Jonah. Jonah took a trip on a boat. One stormy night, Jonah was thrown overboard. A nearby whale opened its mouth to bite him, but Jonah swam away just in time. Jonah then climbed back onto the boat with the help of his fellow sailors.

So what did they discover?

They found that the kids who had been given a religious exposure (went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school) were significantly less able than secular children to differentiate between fact and fiction and were unable to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.

So what does this tell us?

There are two competing ideas, each with distinctly different predictions about the results of a study like this one …

  1. young children have a natural inclination to believe in beings with extraordinary powers, in other words, supernatural belief is hardwired in humans  – This predicts that even in the absence of explicit religious instruction about divine miracles, when children listen to a narrative that includes ordinarily impossible events, they would be prone to accept the existence of extraordinary beings who can bring them about. If this is indeed correct then secular children should not differ radically from religious children in their judgments about biblical stories.
  2. children’s ideas about magic and God come about due to testimony from adults, and so young children believe that otherwise impossible outcomes can occur. This predicts that children who grow up in non-religious households will treat a religious story as a fairy tale.

… and so the outcome of the study illustrates that the second appears to be correct.

Further Thoughts

OK, now I’m straying a bit beyond the paper itself and am simply pondering over the implication.

Given the observation that the vast majority of kids are given some form of religious upbringing, it should perhaps become less of a surprise to find that rather a lot of human adults can at times have a great deal of difficulty working out what is fact and what is fiction. Culturally we are awash with fictitious beliefs (psychics, ghosts, aliens, conspiracies, etc…), and at the same time, evidence based factual observations are dismissed as myth (evolution, climate change, etc..).

I should add the rather observation that this is just one study of one aspect in what is a very complex area, and so we cannot run with this in isolation, it needs to be considered as one small bit of persuasive evidence that is all part of a far larger conversation.

Still … this paper does reveal something of great interest. Here is a quote from the discussion section for Study1…

Unexpectedly, children’s judgments about the protagonists in fantastical stories varied depending on their exposure to religion. Children exposed to religion via church or parochial schooling were less likely to judge such characters as pretend.

… so if you have ever found yourself wondering why so many humans are so prone to embracing such weird ideas, then this does indeed point towards the beginning of an understanding of that.


  • You can find the full paper here, and there is no paywall.

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