Melting lizards and crying mailboxes: children's preferential recall of minimally counterintuitive concepts

Cogn Sci. Sep-Oct 2013;37(7):1251-89. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12037. Epub 2013 Apr 30.


Previous research with adults suggests that a catalog of minimally counterintuitive concepts, which underlies supernatural or religious concepts, may constitute a cognitive optimum and is therefore cognitively encoded and culturally transmitted more successfully than either entirely intuitive concepts or maximally counterintuitive concepts. This study examines whether children's concept recall similarly is sensitive to the degree of conceptual counterintuitiveness (operationalized as a concept's number of ontological domain violations) for items presented in the context of a fictional narrative. Seven- to nine-year-old children who listened to a story including both intuitive and counterintuitive concepts recalled the counterintuitive concepts containing one (Experiment 1) or two (Experiment 2), but not three (Experiment 3), violations of intuitive ontological expectations significantly more and in greater detail than the intuitive concepts, both immediately after hearing the story and 1 week later. We conclude that one or two violations of expectation may be a cognitive optimum for children: They are more inferentially rich and therefore more memorable, whereas three or more violations diminish memorability for target concepts. These results suggest that the cognitive bias for minimally counterintuitive ideas is present and active early in human development, near the start of formal religious instruction. This finding supports a growing literature suggesting that diverse, early-emerging, evolved psychological biases predispose humans to hold and perform religious beliefs and practices whose primary form and content is not derived from arbitrary custom or the social environment alone.

Keywords: Concepts; Counterintuitive; Culture; Evolution; Memory; Religion.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Cognition*
  • Concept Formation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Recall*
  • Religion*