science of us

Little Kids Think Birthday Parties Cause Aging

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

The world’s most delightful study made the rounds recently on Twitter, news sites, and science and parenting blogs: Young children believe aging is directly tied to celebration, and it is the act of attending your birthday party that makes you age another year. Without the cake and candles, according to a number of the study’s subjects, a kid could stay 3 forever.

The study was authored by Jacqueline Woolley, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Woolley specializes in the study of kid logic, and the process through which they form basic theories about how the world works. It’s a process you’re familiar with if you’ve ever been mined for information by a kid between the ages of about 3 and 7. “The sky is blue because of light refraction,” you say authoritatively. “But why?” intones your adorable, ruthless interrogator, and you wonder for a brief moment whether a session of waterboarding would be preferable to continuing this particular conversation.

Despite the exhaustion it induces in us world-weary adults, Woolley says kids’ incessant questioning is an important aspect of cognitive development, and helps them form a base of logic that’s surprisingly scientific. I spoke to Woolley about her research, what it means to think like a kid, and how grown-ups could benefit from a little more childlike wonder.

How did you examine the link in kids’ minds between birthday parties and aging?
We just presented children with three different parallel scenarios about kids having birthday parties, and simply asked how old they thought the kid would be after the party or lack of party. In one situation a child had one birthday party, in another a child for some reason didn’t have a party that year, and in another a child had two birthday parties. Many of the kids responded that the child who had one party would be a year older; the child who’d had two parties would be two years older; and the child who didn’t have a party would stay the same age. It’s not the case that all the kids thought this, but we have some ideas about why some do and some don’t.

Is it tied to levels of intelligence?
Well, we didn’t test intelligence exactly, but we did look at what researchers call children’s naive biology. Most kids have been shown to have a mini theory about basic biology. We asked them two questions to test this: whether you could stop breathing for a couple of days if you wanted to, and whether you could stop your heart from beating for a couple of days. Kids who had a better idea of how the body works also better understood that you can’t stop or affect the aging process with a party.

How do naive theories develop?
Researchers have argued that kids start developing them as early as age 3. It’s not just biology — they develop naive psychology and physics really early. We call them naive theories because the kids aren’t instructed in these topics. There are so many places they could be picking the information up, but the most likely sources are the books parents are reading them and the conversations parents are having with them and with each other in their presence.

You did another study, with surprising results, that showed younger kids are more likely to explain phenomena using real-world logic, as opposed to something like magic.
We tend to think of kids as being really magical thinkers. We think of them as more primitive thinkers in the same way anthropologists talk about people in primitive societies. We assume when kids are trying to explain things that they’ll have a more magical view. Maybe they’ll be more superstitious or appeal to magical beliefs.

But I think a lot of these are actually learned from one’s culture. We learn about things like luck from books and conversations and movies. We learn to think, “Maybe she won that contest because she was lucky” instead of, “She won because she was smart.” We learn to think a person found money on the sidewalk because of karma, or even religion; we learn to say, “Well, God wanted this to happen.” I think we learn from our culture to explain events by appealing to supernatural explanation. Kids are initially going to explain things using what they know about how the world works, based on the logical theories they’ve developed. It’s only as they get older that they’re exposed to these primitive, magical concepts that are really just cultural traditions being reinforced.

What about a belief in Santa Claus? Isn’t that sort of the opposite? Younger kids believe in a magical concept until they get older and realize it isn’t logical, right?
Actually, no. Parents look at Santa belief as this time of magical thinking, but when you think about it, kids are being entirely logical.

They’re being provided with all this evidence of his existence: Bites are gone from the cookies, presents have appeared, parents are talking about Santa the same way they talk about real things. They say, “Santa is coming tomorrow!” the same way they’d say, “Your cousins are coming tomorrow!” Kids are using logical evidence to infer his existence.

I think there’s also a protracted period of uncertainty while still wanting to believe. Scientists do this, too: For a while, if we find evidence that contradicts what we believe, we ignore it or rationalize it.
But the more evidence you have, the harder it gets to do that. Kids are questioning and becoming skeptical about Santa for possibly even years before they stop fully believing. So it may appear to parents and other adults that kids believe full-force, when maybe they really only believe 80 percent, and every year they believe less and less, and they get to the point where they’re really just looking for confirming evidence of his nonexistence. I think parents are pretty motivated to have their kids hold onto those beliefs, so they really ramp up the cultural support for Santa. A lot of parents see Santa disbelief as signaling the end of childhood. They see it as the end of a time when the world is magical and anything’s possible.

Is there any part of that magical world of childhood that we hold onto into adulthood?
Of course! Magical thinking is different from being imaginative. Imaginative thinking doesn’t decrease with age. The place where we see children’s imaginative thinking is in their pretend play. Adults don’t typically pretend, but we write stories and plays, and read novels, and daydream. It’s not as overt as it is in kids, but imagination is still there.

Magical thinking means some kind of reasoning that violates the laws of causality. I think adults do that a lot too — maybe as much as kids — just in different ways. Superstitious thinking would fall into that category.
On some level, with magical thinking, you believe what you’re thinking about, even if it’s on an implicit or subconscious level. Maybe you think the way you sit on your couch during a football game will affect your team’s play. If I ask you, “Okay, for real, if you get up is your team going to start losing?” You’ll say, “No, but I need to do it anyway.” You could ask someone if they think something bad will happen if they walk under a ladder. They’ll say no, but if you put a ladder on their way to work, they’ll walk around it.

Do kids know something about the world that we grow up and forget? Are there any benefits to trying to “think like a kid”?
Adults view adulthood as a time when your possibilities are limited and life is difficult. I think we realize that our imaginations aren’t being used as much as they used to be, and we’re nostalgic for the time we could pretend to be anything we wanted and feel like we really were. Now we’re so wrapped up in our jobs, we don’t give ourselves that freedom anymore.

I think there’s a benefit to believing in things that challenge your ideas about what’s possible in the world, in a broader sense. I don’t know if there’s a direct benefit to believing in Santa, but it’s one of a class of beliefs that could have really important benefits. Anytime you entertain something that violates the way you believe the world works, you start thinking, “Maybe it’s possible …” Think about inventions: If people didn’t think beyond what was possible, really let their imaginations go and think things like, “What if big things could fly in the air?” we wouldn’t have half the things we have. I do think there are benefits to imagining the impossible. It’s kind of like … what’s the Lewis Carroll quote?

I just looked it up. It’s “Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’ ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”
Yes! Wouldn’t it be neat if we could all do that at breakfast? Think of something really radical and crazy, something that violates the way the world works. Something you think is impossible. Entertain that thought for a minute, and maybe it’ll change your life. There’s such a big focus now on meditating, and we get told we should all meditate every day. It would be kind of cool if, instead, we could all just imagine something impossible every day.

Little Kids Think Birthday Parties Cause Aging