Mr. Smart, Heroman, and God

Tom Rees

Let me introduce you to Mr. Smart and Heroman. Mr. Smart is really, really clever—so clever that he knows everything, like what’s inside a closed box. Heroman is not so smart, but he does have a special power: Heroman has X-ray vision—he can see inside the closed box.

Mr. Smart and Heroman played a starring role in a fascinating piece of research recently undertaken by Jonathan Lane and Henry Stevenson, a grad student and a professor of psychology, respectively, at the University of Michigan. They were interested in how children come to form their ideas about magical beings.

The story starts a few years back with the cognitive psychologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind. He wanted to know how old children are when they first come to understand that God is all-seeing while humans are not. Barrett began with a biscuit tin.

Showing the biscuit tin to three-year-olds, he asked them what they thought was inside. “Biscuits!” they answered, but they were wrong. He opened the tin and showed them that it was, in fact, full of pebbles. Then he shut it again. Next, he asked the kids if their mum would know what was inside the tin.

Now, the interesting thing about three-year-olds is that they think that everyone knows what they know. So they think that their mum would know what’s inside the tin, because they’ve seen the pebbles. They also think that God would know what’s inside the tin.

Try this experiment with five-year-olds, and you get a different picture. Five-year-olds know a little bit more about how the world works, and so they’ve learned that Mum is not all-seeing. They know that Mum would be fooled and think that the tin contained biscuits. However, five-year-olds still think that God would know what’s inside the tin.

Barrett concluded that we are born with an intuition of omniscience and have to learn that humans are limited. We are born, in short, with a sense of the mind of God, and this explains why Abrahamic religions are so popular.

There is, however, a problem with this interpretation. After all, there’s a big difference between Mum knowing what I know (which is a kind of mind reading) and Mum knowing everything, including stuff I don’t know (omniscience). That’s where Mr. Smart and Heroman come in.

Lane and Stevenson’s experiment was set up very similarly to Barrett’s. The experimenter sits with the child and a box of crayons in a room—except, of course, the box is full of pebbles, not crayons. The child is shown the surprising contents, and then the box is closed again. The child is asked: Who else will know what’s inside the box, if he or she comes into the room? Would another child of the same age know? Would Mum know? What about Heroman and Mr. Smart? What about God?

As you would expect from Barrett’s results, the answers depend on the age of the child. In an improvement on Barrett’s original study, however, Lane and Stevenson looked at age ranges more closely. This coupled with the inclusion of Mr. Smart and Heroman allowed them to explore changes in children’s thinking as they age in much more detail.

The youngest age group, just under four years old, mostly think that everyone—Mum, a friend of their age, Mr. Smart, and God—would know that the crayon box actually has rocks in it. If the child knows it, then everyone knows it.

The middle group, around four-and-a-half years old, are more likely to think that both Mum and the child would be fooled into thinking (wrongly) that the box holds crayons. Unexpectedly, the children in this middle group think that Mr. Smart would also be fooled—and God, too! The one exception is Heroman. The four-and-a-half-year-olds reckon that Heroman could use his special powers to see into the box, and so he’s the only one who wouldn’t be fooled.

The oldest group, averaging around six years old, have pretty much figured it all out. They know what the correct answers should be—that Mum and the child would be fooled but not Mr. Smart, Heroman, or God.

The discovery that children in the middle of the development range don’t understand omniscience, and by implication don’t understand the mind of God, directly challenges Barrett’s conclusions. What Lane thinks is happening here is that the youngest children are simply falling prey to what’s known as “reality bias.” When asked about what other people know or believe, these very young children tend to answer by simply assessing reality and using that information to infer others’ knowledge and beliefs.

Children in the middle group, however, have developed enough to understand that they can have secrets. They understand that other people have limited minds and that they don’t necessarily know everything that you know. Soon after, children develop an appreciation for the distinction between knowledge and ignorance: they begin to appreciate the distinction between reality and belief; they start to understand that others, misled by inaccurate perceptual cues or outdated information, can hold false beliefs. They know that only Heroman is not ignorant, because only he can see inside the box.

The oldest children have advanced even further. They’ve learned that some beings—gods and the like—have (or are supposed to have) superhuman knowledge. This goes against their experience in the real world, but children are very willing to believe what they are told. Incidentally, that ties in with some other recent research by Vikram Jaswal of the University of Virginia. He found that when children are given misleading cues by adults, they find it very difficult to learn from their mistakes. They go on believing what they are told even though it’s obviously wrong. In fact, they keep believing the adults even when it’s clear that the adults are deceiving them in order to trick them out of something they want. They just can’t resist the urge to believe adults.

Lane concludes that childhood development runs in the exact opposite direction to what Barrett proposes. Rather than intuitively understanding the idea of omniscience, children naturally understand that all agents—people and magical beings—are limited in the same way as the people they know. Realism, not belief, is natural. It’s the Abrahamic idea of an omniscient God that has to be learned.

Tom Rees

Tom Rees is a medical writer and a lifelong humanist. His blog, Epiphenom, covers the latest research into the psychology and social science of religion and nonbelief.

Let me introduce you to Mr. Smart and Heroman. Mr. Smart is really, really clever—so clever that he knows everything, like what’s inside a closed box. Heroman is not so smart, but he does have a special power: Heroman has X-ray vision—he can see inside the closed box. Mr. Smart and Heroman played a starring …

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