If you use a torch to show a three-year-old child that there is a red brick inside a dark box, they will mistakenly assume that everyone else, even without looking, also knows there is a red brick in the box. It's only when they reach the age of about five that they realise other people need to see or be told about the brick to know that it is in there.
That same three-year-old will (appropriately, from a theological perspective) also assert that God knows there is a red brick in the box. Together with other observations, this has led some researchers to conclude that children start out with an understanding of what a god-like, all-knowing perspective is like, and that for several years they mistakenly apply this to other people.
But now Greek psychologists Nikos Makris and Dimitris Pnevmatikos have challenged this idea. They presented 120 Christian children aged between 3 and 7 years with a box that had something rattling around inside it, which they weren't able to reach or see (7 children were earlier excluded because they didn't know who God was). All the age groups correctly stated that another person wouldn't know what was in the box either. In the case of the younger kids, this is simply because they were again assuming that other people's perspective is the same as their own. Crucially, however, only children from about the age of five and up said that God would know what was in the box.
This turns everything on its head. Rather than having an understanding of a god-like perspective which they apply to everyone, the finding suggests three and four-year-olds have an inability to represent the perspective of other people, which in certain contexts, gives the false impression that they understand the idea of an all-knowing god-like mind. Actually, this study shows it's only when they get older, as they begin to understand the perspective of other people, that they also start to truly understand the idea of a supernatural, all-knowing mind.
Makris, N. & Pnevmatikos, D. (2007). Children's understanding of human and supernatural mind. Cognitive Development, 22, 365-375.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.