Animistic thinking in children


Lloyd J. Borstelmann, Supervisor

Stern, Harris Weil







This thesis was digitized as part of a project begun in 2014 to increase the number of Duke psychology theses available online. The digitization project was spearheaded by Ciara Healy.


The objectives of the study were based on constructs which were originally described and studied by Piaget and some of which were studied subsequently by other authors with contradictory results. The four major objectives of the study were: 1. to reexamine the development of children's concepts of life, and, in particular to systematically investigate the relationship between children's errors in classifying items as alive or not alive and their use of different justifications for those classifications , 2. to attempt to elicit precausal explanations from children in response to demonstration items (Piaget ; originally studied precausality in terms of natural objects and events and subsequent experimenters failed to find the precausal forms for demonstrations). 3. to test the hypothesis that children who give pre- causal explanations will have difficulty in learning a causal relationship, even in the face of repeated experience. 4. to test the hypothesis that children who classify inanimate objects as alive (and are hence, animistic) will be the children who also give the greatest number of precausal explanations for demonstrations. 5. to attempt to relate systematic animism and pre- causality to a standardized measure of cognitive development.' In order to study these constructs and the relationships in between them, 96 children between the ages of four and ten years were individually administered a test battery consisting of (1) an animistic questionnaire, consisting of 21 plant, object, and animal items to be classified as alive or not alive; (2) eight demonstrations about which the children were questioned in order to obtain their explanations for what took place; (3) a causal learning task, requiring the children to isolate a particular cause for the outcome of an event, given a number of trials and some directly relevant, extra experience and (4) the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test.

The major findings were: 1. that reduction of animism in children is associated with the identification of life with animals' and their characteristics. This association leads children to classify plants as well as objects as not alive, since plants have none of the more obvious characteristics of animals (locomotion, sensation, vocalization), and, it is only at some later stage, when life is identified with more general characteristics (need for air, water, food; death, birth, reproduction), that plants are again classified as alive. 2. Young children do indeed give precausal, non-mechanical explanations for demonstrations. The study suggests that Piaget's particular categories of precausal thought may not have universal validity for all kinds of events or for all children, but that the general characteristics of these explanations which he described (lack of attention to details of how things happen, lack of understanding of temporal sequences of events, and the lack of understanding of the need for spatial contact for the transfer of energy and motion) are found in the explanations of many young children, even for demonstration and mechanical events. 3. Children who gave precausal explanations for the causal learning task did fail to learn the correct cause-effect relationship. 4. There was no support for Piaget's theory that animism, or the attribution of life to objects, has a direct relationship to precausal explanations. In the present study, animistic children were not more likely to use precausal explanations than were non-animistic children.


Digitized dissertation








Child psychology


Animistic thinking in children




Original bundle

Now showing 1 - 1 of 1
Thumbnail Image
9.35 MB
Adobe Portable Document Format