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Abstract

Over the last ten years or so, many cognitive scientists have begun to work on topics traditionally associated with philosophical aesthetics, such as issues about the objectivity of aesthetic judgments and the nature of aesthetic experience. An increasingly interdisciplinary turn within philosophy has started to take advantage of these connections, to the benefit of all. But one area that has been somewhat overlooked in this new dialogue is developmental psychology, which treats questions about whether and to what extent children's intuitions about various aspects of aesthetic experience match those of adults, as well as the origins and developmental trajectories of these intuitions. The current paper reviews some recent work in developmental psychology that has the potential to inform philosophical research on a variety of topics – not necessarily because of this work tells us directly about what children think, but because learning what children's aesthetic intuitions are and how they develop can help us to better understand why adults have the intuitions that they do.
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The Development of Imaginative Cognition
Deena Skolnick Weisberg
Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement / Volume 75 / October 2014, pp 85 - 103
DOI: 10.1017/S1358246114000289, Published online: 03 October 2014
Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S1358246114000289
How to cite this article:
Deena Skolnick Weisberg (2014). The Development of Imaginative Cognition.
Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 75, pp 85-103 doi:10.1017/
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The Development of Imaginative
Cognition
1
DEENA SKOLNICK WEISBERG
Introduction
Over the last ten years or so, many cognitive scientists have begun to
work on topics traditionally associated with philosophical aesthetics,
such as issues about the objectivity of aesthetic judgments and
the nature of aesthetic experience. An increasingly interdisciplinary
turn within philosophy has started to take advantage of these connec-
tions, to the benefit of all. But one area that has been somewhat over-
looked in this new dialogue is developmental psychology, which
treats questions about whether and to what extent childrens intui-
tions about various aspects of aesthetic experience match those of
adults, as well as the origins and developmental trajectories of these
intuitions. The current paper reviews some recent work in develop-
mental psychology that has the potential to inform philosophical
research on a variety of topics not necessarily because of this work
tells us directly about what children think, but because learning
what childrens aesthetic intuitions are and how they develop can help
us to better understand why adults have the intuitions that they do.
For example, consider the paradoxes of tragedy and horror: Why
do we as adults enjoy fictions that make us feel sad, horrified, or
even disgusted? One possibility is that these preferences are the
result of cultural pressure or the output of a highly developed aesthet-
ic sense. A different possibility is that we are attracted to these kinds
of aesthetic experiences even as children. This latter option would
suggest that the existence of these paradoxes result from some basic
facts about how our aesthetic preferences work. Some suggestive
recent work indicates that this might in fact be the case, since even
1
The author would like to thank the organizers and attendees of the
2012 AHRC workshop on Method in Philosophical Aesthetics: The
Challenge from the Sciencesfor their insightful comments and questions.
Thanks also to Paul Bloom, Joshua Goodstein, Alison Gopnik, Alan Leslie,
David Sobel, Lu Wang, and Michael Weisberg for their support of the pro-
jects reported in this paper.
85
doi:10.1017/S1358246114000289 © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2014
Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 75 2014
6-year-olds report liking scary and sad stories
2
. This is just one
example of how empirical data about development can help to
inform debates within the field of aesthetics.
This paper provides another, more extended, example of how
recent empirical findings in developmental psychology can inform
issues in philosophical aesthetics. The topic under consideration is
that of how the imagination works. How is it that we are able to inter-
act with stories and scenarios that do not reflect the truth of reality,
and that we know to be fictional in this way? What is the nature of
this cognitive capacity early in development? More importantly,
how can knowing these origins inform our understanding of the
ways in which this capacity changes (or remains the same) over
the course of development? Answering these questions can provide
fresh insight into two philosophical topics: how people decide
which propositions hold true in fictional worlds, and under what cir-
cumstances people experience imaginative resistance. After reviewing
recent empirical work that bears on these topics, this paper closes
with some thoughts about the role that imaginative cognition plays
in development.
What is imaginative cognition?
Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of cognitive acts: those that are
aimed at reality, and those that are not. Into the former category fall
those processes that help us to navigate the real world, such as our
perceptual abilities. Into the latter category fall those processes that
allow us to think about scenarios that do not necessarily reflect the
truth of the real world, of which imagination is the primary example.
It is important to note that this distinction is based on what goal is
currently driving the cognitive act, rather than on an actual categor-
ical distinction between different types of cognitive processes. To see
why this is the case, consider that most of our cognitive processes can
be used for both types of act. For instance, we form memories of both
real events and of events that we have merely imagined, and we draw
inferences about events that happen in reality and events that happen
in a fictional story using basically the same cognitive apparatus
3
.
2
L. Guillot & P. Bloom Are children interested in negative stories?
Poster presented at the biennial meeting of the Cognitive Development
Society (2011).
3
This is known as the single code theory.See F. M. Bosco,
O. Friedman, & A. M. Leslie, Recognition of pretend and real actions in
86
Deena Skolnick Weisberg
Even still, there is a class of cognitive abilities that seem to be de-
signed to operate without taking into account whether the scenarios
they consider are true or false in the real world. This is sometimes de-
scribed as the contrast between believing and pretending
4
, although
this class encompasses far more activities than just pretending. We
can not only pretend, we can also create thought experiments, or
suppose for the sake of argument, or tell a fictional stories, or envision
a future possibility. All of these abilities are deployed for different
reasons and have their own unique features. But what they have in
common is precisely the fact that they can operate independently of
what we take to be true. This kernel of commonality is the imagin-
ation the ability to engage with entities and events that are not
real. Given its role in this wide variety of cognitive tasks, it is clear
that the imagination is a ubiquitous tool we use for understanding
and interacting with the world around us. Being able to imagine
what could possibly happen in the future can help us to plan and
make decisions, and being able to consider an alternative past can
help us to understand why things happened the way they did
5
.
In considering the imaginative capacities of young children, pre-
tending and comprehending fictional stories are the two imagin-
ation-based abilities that are studied most often, since these are the
abilities with which children are most explicitly familiar. Hence the
conclusions that are drawn from this research apply most directly to
these kinds of representations. But because the same underlying cog-
nitive mechanism the imagination is responsible not only for pre-
tending and story creating, but also for all of the other activities
play by 1- and 2-year-olds: Early success and why they fail,Cognitive
Development,21 (2006), 310; T. S. Gendler & K. Kovakovich, Genuine
rational fictional emotions,in M. Kieran (Ed.), Contemporary debates in aes-
thetics and the philosophy of art (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005); S. Nichols,
Imagining and believing: The promise of a single code,The Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism,62 (2004), 129139.
4
A. M. Leslie, Pretense and representation: The origins of Theory of
Mind,”’ Psychological Review,94 (1987), 412422; S. Nichols & S. P. Stich,
Mindreading: An integrated account of pretense, self-awareness, and under-
standing other minds (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
5
A. Gopnik, C. Glymour, D. M. Sobel, L. E. Schulz, T. Kushnir, &
D. Danks, A theory of causal learning in children: Causal maps and
Bayes nets,Psychological Review,111 (2004), 332; D. Lewis,
Causation,Journal of Philosophy,70 (1973), 556567; D. S. Weisberg &
A. Gopnik, Pretense, counterfactuals, and Bayesian causal models: Why
what is not real really matters,Cognitive Science,37 (2013), 13681381.
87
The Development of Imaginative Cognition
mentioned above, discovering how children respond to pretend scen-
arios and fictional stories can shed light on this wider class of repre-
sentational activities.
Whats the difference between reality and fiction?
One of the first questions we must ask when considering how young
children cognize and respond to imagined scenarios is whether
they understand that these scenarios are indeed imagined. If a child
fails to understand that the events in a story have not actually hap-
pened in real life, he or she cannot really be said to be imagining the
story
6
.
Luckily, several decades of diligent work in developmental psy-
chology have discovered that children do make a robust reality/
fiction distinction
7
. Most of these studies use explicit response
measures to draw this conclusion, for example, by asking children
to label pictures as realor make-believe,or by asking children
to sort pictures into different boxes that represent the two
categories. These studies rely on the fact that children understand
and properly use words like make-believeor fictional
8
.Some
recent work has begun to rely on more spontaneous or implicit
measures of childrens understanding, which has permitted the
field to test childrens understanding of the nature of the reality/
fiction distinction at younger and younger ages. In one of these
6
See J. Piaget, Play, dreams and imitation in childhood (New York:
Norton, 1962).
7
For example, A. Bourchier & A. Davis, Childrens understanding of
the pretence-reality distinction: A review of current theory and evidence,
Developmental Science,5(2002), 397413; C. Golomb & R. Kuersten, On
the transition from pretense play to reality: What are the rules of the
game?British Journal of Developmental Psychology,14 (1996), 203217;
A. Samuels & M. Taylor, Childrens ability to distinguish fantasy events
from real-life events,British Journal of Developmental Psychology,12
(1994), 417427; J. D. Woolley & V. Cox, Development of beliefs about
storybook reality.Developmental Science,10 (2007), 681693. For review,
see D. S. Weisberg, Distinguishing imagination from realityin M.
Taylor (ed.), Oxford Handbook of the Development of Imagination
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
8
J. D. Woolley & H. M. Wellman, Young childrens understanding of
realities, nonrealities, and appearancesChild Development,61 (1990),
946961.
88
Deena Skolnick Weisberg
studies
9
, researchers presented three-year-olds with a pretend scen-
ario in which a puppet used an object functionally in a game, rather
than according to its pretend identity. For example, an experiment-
er would establish a pretense whereby a pen was a toothbrush, and
then the puppet would draw with the pen. Children tended to
object to the puppets actions, but only when the puppet had been
present for the establishment of the pretend identity. When the
puppet was absent for the establishment of the pretend identity,
children did not object. These results demonstrate that three-
year-olds understand that the rules that govern pretend games are
context-specific and should not spill over into reality. Several
studies have also used data about the duration or direction of chil-
drens spontaneous looking to determine how they think about dif-
ferent kinds of pretend scenarios
10
.
More work should be done at the younger end of this age spectrum
to determine more precisely when this distinction is in place,
although such work cannot rely on verbal measures and is thus ham-
pered by difficulties in interpreting childrens spontaneous re-
sponses. For example, suppose a child laughs or expresses surprise
at someone drinking tea from an empty cup. Is she demonstrating
her understanding that this is a non-literal scenario, or merely regis-
tering the fact that this is an odd example of a drinking event?
Answering this question has the potential to tell us whether children
learn at some point that there are different types of representations,
only some of which are meant to reflect reality, or whether this
type of understanding is in some sense a basic, unlearned property
of our cognitive systems. Unfortunately, we currently lack a good
method for telling the difference between these two options.
Nevertheless, the overall message of this body of work is that chil-
dren do understand the difference between imagination and reality, at
least by the age of three, and likely earlier. This is itself a substantial
cognitive achievement, but recent work in my lab and others has dis-
covered that childrens understanding of the difference between
reality and fiction is even more nuanced than this. Not only do
young children separate the real world from the realm of the
9
Study 1 of E. Wyman, H. Rakoczy, & M. Tomasello, Normativity
and context in young childrens pretend play,Cognitive Development,24
(2009), 146155.
10
K. H. Onishi, R. Baillargeon, & A. M. Leslie, 15-month-old infants
detect violations in pretend scenarios,Acta Psychologica,124 (2007),
106128; D. S. Weisberg, L. Wang, & A. M. Leslie, How do young chil-
dren conceptualize socially constructed pretend scenarios?(under review).
89
The Development of Imaginative Cognition
imagination, they also make separations between multiple imagined
worlds
11
. In this study, we presented a group of four-year-old chil-
dren and a group of adults with pictures of fictional characters and
real people and asked them three types of question. The fantasy/
reality questions probed these participantsability to tell who was
real and who was fictional, from the participants own point of
view: Is Batman real or is he make-believe?The within-world
questions then shifted their perspective to that of one of the fictional
characters and asked what that character would think of a secondary
character within the same story: What does Batman think about
Robin? Does Batman think that Robin is real or make-believe?
The fantasy/fantasy questions retained this focus on a fictional char-
acters beliefs but asked participants to report this beliefs about a
character from a different story: What does Batman think about
SpongeBob? Does Batman think that SpongeBob is real or make-
believe?
Children and adults responded to these questions in the same way:
Batman is in fact fictional, but he believes that Robin is real and he
believes that SpongeBob is fictional. This latter response is particu-
larly intriguing, since it suggests that Batman views SpongeBob in
the same way that we view SpongeBob: as a fictional character, a
denizen of fictional world that is separate from his own. Children
and adults thus see the realm of fantasy as populated by multiple, sep-
arate fictional worlds. Contact between them is no more possible than
it is between our world and any of the many fictional worlds we know
about.
However, as argued earlier, understanding fictional stories is not
the only way in which our imaginative capacities are deployed;
theyre also used for creating and understanding a wide variety of
non-real scenarios. Given this, one would expect the intuition that
different representations are separate to extend beyond fictional
stories to other types of representation.
Several examinations of childrens interactions with pretend games
shows that this is indeed the case. Children create separate represen-
tations for the different pretend games that they play in addition to
doing so for the different fictional stories that they know about
12
.
11
D. Skolnick & P. Bloom, What does Batman think about
SpongeBob? Childrens understanding of the fantasy/fantasy distinction,
Cognition,101 (2006), B9B18.
12
P. L. Harris & R. D. Kavanaugh, Young childrens understanding of
pretense,Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development,58
(1993); D. S. Weisberg, L. Wang, & A. M. Leslie, How do young children
90
Deena Skolnick Weisberg
In our first study of this issue
13
, two experimenters set up two differ-
ent pretend games with a group of three- and four-year-old child par-
ticipants. Within each pretend game, there was a stuffed animal
character, controlled by the experimenter. There was also a pile of
colored blocks within easy reach of the child, which were used
throughout the experiment as pretend objects within the games.
First, the experimenters asked for each childs help in setting up
the two pretend games, in sequence. For example, the first experi-
menter asked the child to help her doll to take a bath. The child
decided what the doll needed for her bath, such as a towel, and pre-
tended that one of the blocks was a towel within that game. The
second experimenter then set up an analogous game with a teddy
bear who needed to take a nap.
To test whether children represent these two games as separate, as
they do with fictional stories, we set up a situation that could poten-
tially have involved a crossover. For example, the second experi-
menter announced that it was time for the bear to take a bath, so he
needed a towel. On hearing this, children had a number of choices
of how to respond. One option was to move the towel from the
dolls game into the bears game. Although this would be a simple
and parsimonious way of responding to the situation, it would
involve breaking the boundary that potentially exists between the
two games. If children represent the games as separate, the dolls
towel is inaccessible to the bear, no matter how appropriate it is to
solve his current problem. If this is how children see things, then
they should select a new block to serve as the bears towel. This is
exactly what they did.
This response tendency is especially interesting because children
create and have control over these pretend interactions in a way that
they do not for fictional stories. The experimental setup involved
both experimenters sitting with the child in the same physical
space, so that everyone could see what was going on in both games.
Given this, it would have been quite easy to cross an object from
one game to the other. But thats not what happened; children pre-
ferred to invest a new object with the appropriate pretend identity
and keep the two games distinct.
conceptualize socially constructed pretend scenarios?op. cit.; E. Wyman,
H. Rakoczy, & M. Tomasello, Normativity and context in young childrens
pretend play,op. cit.
13
Study 1 of D. S. Weisberg & P. Bloom, Young children separate
multiple pretend worlds,Developmental Science,12 (2009), 699705.
91
The Development of Imaginative Cognition
This line of research shows that children understand not only the
difference between reality and fiction, but also what would be fiction-
al from the point of view of a particular fictional world. That is, they
separate different imagined representations. This is a substantial cog-
nitive achievement that develops early and does not appear to change
over the course of development. Although these two facts cannot be
taken as definitive evidence that these abilities are unlearned, they do
suggest that these response tendencies arise from some basic capacity
that is common to all types of imaginative cognition, including fic-
tional stories, pretend games, past and future counterfactuals, and
so on.
These results additionally bear on questions of how we know which
propositions hold true within the context of a given fictional scenario.
Specifically, they suggest that children (and adults) import infor-
mation about relationships between worlds into imagined representa-
tions. The fact SpongeBob is a fictional characteris true in reality,
so when we create a representation of Batmans world, this fact is in-
cluded in that representation. That is, Batman believes SpongeBob
to be fictional because we do; his beliefs about what is fictional are
parasitic on ours. This obviously cannot be the whole story: The
fact Batman is a fictional characteris also true in reality but
should not hold in Batmans world. Nevertheless, this analysis sug-
gests that our decisions about what is true in any given fictional
world are generally based on our understanding of reality. This
paper next turns to a broader analysis of this claim.
What belongs in an imagined scenario?
The research just reviewed shows that children and adults understand
the relationships that hold among different imagined scenarios. But
what are their intuitions about the content of any given imagined
scenario? How much of the real world is imported into an imagined
scenario, how much comes from the scenarios explicit setup (e.g.,
counterfactual premise, fictional text), and how much is created out
of whole cloth? These issues have been treated extensively by philo-
sophers
14
, who generally agree that fictional worlds are based on
reality. One simple implementation of this argument is the
14
For example, G. Currie, The nature of fiction (Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 1990); D. Lewis, Truth in fiction,
American Philosophical Quarterly,15 (1978), 3746; K. L. Walton,
Mimesis as make-believe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).
92
Deena Skolnick Weisberg
Principle of Minimal Departure
15
, which argues that a given fictional
world should be as similar to reality as possible, differing in only
those parts of the world that are necessary for implementing the
story. This principle works quite well to address the issue raised
above: The people who inhabit Batmans world should not believe
that Batman is fictional, even though the people who inhabit reality
should. So when we construct Batmans world, we need to modify
our representation to delete this real-world fact from that representa-
tion. There is no reason to delete similar facts about other fictional
characters, though, which explains why the fact SpongeBob is a fic-
tional characterstill holds true for the people in Batmans world.
Does this principle capture how people actually decide what is true
in a fictional world? Previous studies about peoples intuitions about
the content of imagined scenarios in the adult psychological literature
have generally answered this question in the affirmative; people bring
to bear their normal psychological tools and their expectations
for how the real world operates to their understanding of imagined
words
16
. Our first study
17
was designed to determine more specific-
ally the degree to which this was the case.
This study presented adults with three stories that varied in their
similarity to the real world: one in which no laws of reality were
broken, one in which the main character had special powers but
which was otherwise realistic, and one in which many laws of
reality were broken. We then asked adults to judge whether a set of
facts, all of which were true in the real world, were also true in the
world described by the story. These facts fell into four categories:
contingent (e.g., who the current President is), conventional (e.g.,
what people usually eat for dessert), scientific (e.g., which direction
the sun travels across the sky), and mathematical (e.g., 2 +2=4).
Overall, across all types of stories and all types of facts, our partici-
pants judged that the real-world facts would remain true in the
fictional world. When considered by story, our participants judged
that most real-world facts remained true in the realistic story, and
15
M. Ryan, Fiction, non-factuals, and the principle of minimal
departure,Poetics,9(1980), 403422.
16
For example, R. J. Gerrig, Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psy-
chological activities of reading (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
1993); E. J. Marsh, M. L. Meade, & H. L. Roediger, Learning facts
from fiction,Journal of Memory and Language,49 (2003), 519536; D. A.
Prentice, R. J. Gerrig, & D. S. Bailis, What readers bring to the processing
of fictional texts,Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,4(1997), 416420.
17
D. S. Weisberg & J. Goodstein, What belongs in a fictional world?
Journal of Cognition and Culture,9(2009), 6978.
93
The Development of Imaginative Cognition
the number of facts judged true in the story fell off linearly as the
stories became less realistic. We found the same linear pattern when
considering types of facts: Mathematical facts were the most likely
to hold true across all three stories, followed by scientific, convention-
al, and contingent facts, in that order.
These results demonstrate that adults do not construct fictional
stories out of whole cloth; facts that are true in reality also tend to
hold true in stories. These results also demonstrate that adults have
clear and consistent intuitions about aspects of story worlds that are
not explicitly defined by a storys text, and indeed that are not even
relevant to the events of the story. Further, these results suggest
that the Principle of Minimal Departure, or similarly simple ways of
capturing truth-in-fiction, does not tell the whole story. Although
our participants did generally judge that real-world facts remained
true in fiction, their likelihood of doing so was affected by how differ-
ent the fictional world was from the real world. The sun still rises in
the east and sets in the west, even in our most fantastical story, but
this was seen as less likely to be the case in this story than in the
wholly realistic one. Thus, any theory about truth-in-fiction should
take into account something like story genre. Adults, at least, have
some expectations about how stories work in general (e.g., worlds
with some violations of real-world structure may contain others),
and this knowledge combines with real-world facts to determine
what holds true in any given fictional world. The same is true when
it comes to thinking aboutthe type of fact itself: Adults know that con-
tingent facts are more variable than mathematical ones, for example.
This means that the former are generally less likely to hold true in a
story and more vulnerable to being deleted from a story world than
the latter, even if no specific information is provided about either.
18
Our next step wasto ask where these intuitions come from. Do chil-
dren behave like adults with respect to these issues, as they do with the
reality/fantasy distinction? Are some aspects of their performance
adult-like and some immature? Or are their intuitions at odds with
those of adults, suggesting a longer and possibly more complicated
developmental trajectory?
To answer these questions, my colleagues and I presented four-
year-old children with a similar task to the adult one just described
19
.
18
I am grateful to Gregory Currie for his insightful discussion of these
issues.
19
D. S. Weisberg, D. M. Sobel, J. Goodstein & P. Bloom, Young chil-
dren are reality-prone when thinking about stories,Journal of Cognition and
Culture,13 (2013), 383401.
94
Deena Skolnick Weisberg
Although we had asked adults to use a scale to make an explicit judg-
ment about the content of a story world, we anticipated that this kind
of response would be difficult for our preschool-aged subjects, so we
changed the design somewhat. Children in this study were presented
with one of three types of story: a Realistic one, in which all of the
events could possibly happen in reality, a Fantastical one, in which
many laws that govern reality were broken, and a Letter, which pre-
sented the same text as the Realistic story but which was described as
being an explicit reflection of something that had actually happened.
The text of these stories presented the same sequence of events, but
the way in which these events came about different by condition.
For example, the main character decides to go to the ice cream store
in both stories. In the Realistic story and the Letter, he walks to the
store; in the Fantastical story, he teleports to the store.
Once we set up story world by reading the child a few pages, we
pretended that the next page of the book (or letter) had fallen out
and had gotten mixed up with pages from other books (or letters).
We told the child that his or her job was to help us figure out
which page came next in the story that we had been reading.
Although not explicitly stated, the goal of this question is the same
as the goal of the questions in the adult study: Given what has
already happened in this story, what other sorts of events belong
within this context? Childrens choices were always between a pos-
sible event, which did not break any real-world laws, and an impos-
sible event, which did. Once they chose an event, we thanked them
without giving any positive or negative feedback and continued
reading the story.
There were eight places over the course of the story where children
were asked to choose which event should come next. We averaged
these eight responses together to obtain an overall measure of how
children in each condition responded. We also tested a group of
adults in exactly the same procedure to provide a direct comparison
for childrens responses.
We found that children and adults did not differ in their responses
to the Letter. Participants in both age groups judged that only pos-
sible events, not impossible ones, belonged in this context. This
suggests that children understood the task of filling in the event
sequence with appropriate events, lending credence to their behavior
in the other two conditions. Here, performance differed markedly
between the adults and the children. As would be expected from
their behavior in the previous study, adults tended to choose the pos-
sible pictures to continue the Realistic story and the impossible pic-
tures to continue the Fantastical story. This demonstrates their
95
The Development of Imaginative Cognition
understanding that the two stories set up different types of worlds in
which different events are more or less likely to happen.
Children, on the other hand, tended to choose the possible pictures
to continue both types of story. Although this tendency makes a
certain amount of sense for the Realistic story, it is somewhat puz-
zling in the case of the Fantastical story. There are already a good
number of impossible events taking place in this story, so why
should children have trouble putting additional impossible events
into this context? One possibility was that they simply didnt see
the impossible events in the Fantastical story as being impossible.
This seemed unlikely, since we chose the impossible events to make
up the Fantastical story based on previous studies in which children
have judged precisely these types of events as make-believe.
Nevertheless, we explored this option by using video clips rather
than picture books to present the story, reasoning that children may
be better able to perceive the fantastical nature of the story if it was
presented in a more visually salient way. Results from the video
study confirmed those from the storybook study: Children preferred
to include possible, not impossible, events in the videos when given
the choice of how to continue the story.
A different possibility for this response tendency could be that
children dislike the impossible events and want to avoid choosing
them as a general principle, not because of anything in particular
about the stories. To test this, we recruited separate groups of chil-
dren to look just at the possible and impossible choice pictures
from both the storybook and video studies. In the absence of any
story context, we asked children to choose which of the two pictures
they liked better. Children in these control conditions were split
evenly between their choices of the possible and the impossible pic-
tures. Importantly, childrens level of choosing the impossible pic-
tures in this task (about 50%) was significantly different from their
level of choosing the impossible pictures in the course of the
complete the storytask (about 30%). This indicates that children
do not have a general tendency to avoid the impossible pictures,
hence that their tendency to choose the possible pictures in the com-
plete the storytask genuinely reflects something about the way that
they view story worlds per se.
Even given this reassurance, it is still possible that children misun-
derstand some aspect of our test question. Consider that we are asking
them to do a somewhat difficult task: They need to listen to a story,
abstract away from the concrete features of the story to figure out
what kind of world we are presenting (what might be called its
genre), and then figure out which of the two choice options we are
96
Deena Skolnick Weisberg
presenting fit most naturally within that abstract category. This is
likely to be a difficult task for four-year-olds regardless of their
beliefs about different kinds of stories. Can they perform this task
at all, leaving aside the question of story worlds? To determine
whether they can, we created a simplified set of impossible events
and presented these to children in three different conditions.
Children in the Story condition were told that the events formed a
story, as in the previous study. Children in the Desire condition
were told that they were all events that the experimenter particularly
liked. Children in the Word condition were told that all of the events
were blickishor another nonce word with an adjectival form. In all
cases, children were asked to choose which of two additional pictures
belonged in the story, or was one that the experimenter liked, or was
also blickish:an impossible event or a possible event.
We designed the Desire and Word conditions to determine
whether children could form an abstract category of the type that
they needed to in order to solve the complete the storytask. If chil-
dren can learn a new word that described this category, for example,
this would show that they possessed the prerequisite abilities to
match impossible pictures to Fantastical stories, hence that their ten-
dency not to do so in the complete the storytask really reflects some
aspect of how they think about stories and not any general cognitive
limitation.
This is precisely what we found. Children in the Story condition
tended to pick the possible event at test, as in our previous studies,
but children in the Word condition tended to pick the impossible
event. Children in the Desire condition were split evenly between
the two events, possibly because they assumed that the experimen-
ters preferences would match their own preferences for a roughly
equal number of impossible and possible events.
The important message from all of these studies is that children,
unlike adults, would prefer stories to contain possible, non-rule-vio-
lating events, even when the story context could potentially permit
events that are impossible. This does not seem to be due to a
general preference for or against impossible events, nor is it due to
a failure to understand the nature of the genre-matching task.
Rather, at least in preschool, children seem to prefer to make the
stories that they hear match reality as closely as possible.
Why should this be the case? One likely possibility is that this is a
simple matter of immaturity: Children can interact with imagined
worlds from early ages, but simply lack the creativity or motivation
to venture too far from reality in these interactions. On this view,
what happens over the course of development involves children
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The Development of Imaginative Cognition
becoming more willing or able to consider unrealistic events in their
imagined scenarios contrary to the popular view, which holds that
young children are wildly imaginative and creative and lose this
ability as they get older.
In a recent paper
20
, we proposed a somewhat more refined version
of this hypothesis, which speculates that the reason that children stick
close to reality in their imagined endeavors is because they are still
learning about how reality works. Because they are unsure about
many aspects of the structure of reality, they prefer to rely on what
they know. When they become secure enough in their real-world
knowledge, they can begin to imaginatively explore possibilities in
which this knowledge is violated. This view predicts, somewhat para-
doxically, that it is those domains of knowledge that children hold
more strongly and understand more deeply that are more likely to
be counterfactualized in the context of a fantastical fictional story.
To test this hypothesis, we contrasted events from two domains:
physics, which children understand very well from a very early age,
and biology, a full understanding of which is still developing in
the preschool years. As in previous studies, we created sets of possible
and impossible events. In this case, the impossible events were
impossible because they violated some principle either of physics
(e.g., a character walks through a wall) or of biology (e.g., a character
never needs to sleep). The possible events presented the realistic ana-
logues to these events (e.g., a character walks through a door
and needs to sleep when hes tired). Rather than creating stories
and asking children to complete them, in this study we simply pre-
sented these pairs of possible and impossible events to preschoolers
without prior context and asked them to choose which picture they
would like to put in their story. There were six such choices, three
in the physics domain and three in the biology domain.
We found, as in previous studies, that childrens choices were pri-
marily of possible rather than impossible events. This is an especially
interesting tendency since this task presented no prior story context
to match and no task other than to create a story of their own
design. Even with such loose constraints, children still preferred to
put realistic as opposed to fantastical events into their stories. But
an examination of those events for which children did choose the
impossible member of the pair confirms our hypothesis: Children
were more likely to pick impossible physical events than impossible
20
D. M. Sobel & D. S. Weisberg, Tell me a story: How childrens de-
veloping domain knowledge affects their story construction,Journal of
Cognition and Development (in press).
98
Deena Skolnick Weisberg
biological events. This suggests that childrens overall attraction
towards realistic events in stories is at least partially a result of their
developing understanding of the real world. The more they know
about some aspect of reality, the more comfortable they feel leaving
it behind to explore alternative structures. This implies that our
world-construction abilities develop in tandem with our knowledge
of reality: The more we know, the more we can imagine.
The results of this series of studies have some interesting impli-
cations for the phenomenon of imaginative resistance, which occurs
because there are some real-world facts that we can never leave
behind when we construct imagined scenarios, either because
we are unwilling or unable to do so
21
. Many theories of imaginative
resistance have suggested that it occurs primarily for those facts
that are central to the structure of reality or to our conceptions
thereof, such as logical or moral facts. The results of the adult
study I reviewed earlier
22
support this argument, since those subjects
were more likely to retain mathematical facts even in the face of a fan-
tastical fictional story. But the current developmental results paint a
different picture. Four-year-old children were more willing to con-
sider violations of physics-based events than violations of biology-
based events, since their understanding of the latter is still tenuous
at this age. This suggests that imaginative resistance may occur not
only for those events that we see as structurally central to the real
world, but also for those events about which we feel some kind of
uncertainty.
The fact that imaginative resistance occurs for two contrasting
categories of facts in turn suggests that there may be two different me-
chanisms driving this phenomenon. When we experience imaginative
resistance to facts that we see as central to reality, this may occur
because of a genuine inability to imagine a world in which these
facts are different. But when we experience imaginative resistance
to facts about which we are uncertain, this may occur because of
reluctance to step too far outside of the boundaries of our current,
and weak, knowledge. In turn, this analysis suggests that the cure
21
See T. S. Gendler, The puzzle of imaginative resistance,Journal of
Philosophy,97 (2000), 285299; T. S. Gender, Imaginative resistance revis-
itedand J. Weinberg & A. Meskin, Puzzling over the imagination:
Philosophical problems, architectural solutions,in S. Nichols (ed.), The
architecture of the imagination: New essays on pretense, possibility and fiction
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
22
D. S. Weisberg & J. Goodstein, What belongs in a fictional world?
op. cit.
99
The Development of Imaginative Cognition
for imaginative resistance should differ across these two cases. The
former type may never subside or be overcome, whereas the latter
should disappear with an increase in knowledge in that domain.
However, we should be careful not to take this last point too far,
since increased knowledge can impose its own limits on our imagina-
tive abilities. A series of studies have shown that adults tend to get
stuck on the structure of reality even when they are trying to exercise
their imaginative capacities
23
. For example, adults who were asked to
draw alien creatures that were wildly different from Earth animals
tended to preserve many of the key features of the real animals,
such as bilateral symmetry
24
. So the idea that more knowledge
leads to less imaginative resistance and more imaginative freedom is
the start of the story, but not the whole story, and more work is
needed to map this developmental trajectory in detail.
How do we think about improbable events?
The research discussed thus far has looked at issues of black-and-
white distinctions, such as the difference between fiction and
reality, or between events that are entirely ordinary and events that
are impossible because they break some natural law. But there are
also cases that involve somewhat more shades of gray, such as
events that may be unfamiliar to children but not necessarily impos-
sible. This category of improbable events provides an interesting arena
in which we can use the complete the storyprocedure to probe
childrens understanding of the nuances of the reality/fantasy
distinction.
Previous work suggests that young children have a poor under-
standing of improbable events
25
. As reviewed earlier, four-year-
23
S. Brédart, T. B. Ward & P. Marczewski, Structured imagination of
novel creaturesfaces,American Journal of Psychology,111 (1998), 607625;
T. B. Ward, Structured imagination: The role of category structure in
exemplar generation,Cognitive Psychology,27 (1994), 140; T. B. Ward
& C. M. Sifonis, Task demands and generative thinking: What changes
and what remains the same?Journal of Creative Behavior,31 (1997),
245259.
24
T. B. Ward, Structured imagination: The role of category structure
in exemplar generation,op. cit.
25
A. Shtulman, The development of possibility judgment within and
across domains,Cognitive Development,24 (2009), 293309; A. Shtulman &
S. Carey, Improbable or impossible? How children reason about the possi-
bility of extraordinary events,Child Development,78 (2007), 10151032.
100
Deena Skolnick Weisberg
olds can explicitly report that possible events are possible and that
impossible events are impossible. However, they tend to mis-categor-
ize improbable events as impossible. That is, children tend to see
events that are unfamiliar or unusual as being in the same category
as events that cant actually happen. We began our study of this
issue by replicating this effect
26
. We created three sets of events:
ordinary (e.g., Moe has a pet cat), improbable (e.g., Moe has a pet
squirrel), and impossible (e.g., Moe has a pet dragon) and asked chil-
dren to categorize them. As in previous work, childrens judgments
were accurate except for the improbable events, which they tended
to say were impossible.
But we doubted that children really lack an understanding of this
category. We suspected that their difficulty with the categorization
task was a difficulty in explicitly reporting on the status of these
events, not with understanding that they could potentially happen
in reality. To test this hypothesis, we presented these same children
with a version of our complete the storytask. In this case, children
saw stories made up entirely of events from the improbable set. Then,
one group of children was given the choice to continue this story with
another improbable event or an ordinary event. In this condition,
children did not show a preference; either event was seen as an appro-
priate addition to the story. A second group of children was given the
choice to continue the story with another improbable event or an
impossible event. Here, children significantly preferred the improb-
able event. This behavior demonstrates that children do not believe
that improbable events are impossible; if that were the case, they
would have seen the two choice events in this condition as belonging
to the same category and would have been unable to distinguish
between them. So while an explicit understanding of improbability
develops after the age of four years, children at this age can demon-
strate their knowledge of the difference between improbable and
impossible events within a helpful story-based context.
What role does the imagination play in development?
Thus far, this review has focused on two lines of work examining chil-
drens abilities to create and interact with imagined representations.
Some aspects of these abilities develop early and remain relatively
26
D. S. Weisberg & D. M. Sobel, Young children discriminate
improbable from impossible events in fiction,Cognitive Development,27
(2012), 9098.
101
The Development of Imaginative Cognition
unchanged over the course of development: Even three-year-olds dis-
tinguish real from imagined representations and different imagined
representations from each other. But other aspects of these abilities
take longer to mature and undergo a good deal of developmental
change: Four-year-olds, unlike adults, tend to construct realistic
imagined worlds, possibly because they their knowledge of the real
world is not yet secure enough to consider different kinds of
counterfactuals.
Both of these aspects of childrens imaginative capacities play an
important role in development. As argued earlier, the imagination
allows us not only to interact with fictional stories and pretend
games, but also to create causal counterfactuals, future hypotheticals,
and scientific thought experiments, among other types of representa-
tion. The ability to separate multiple imagined representations is at
the heart of using these more seriousimagined scenarios appropri-
ately. Consider future planning: In order to decide whether to do X or
Y, one needs to imaginatively work through the consequences of
doing X and the consequences of doing Y. But when making this
decision, one must be able to represent these two possible futures
as separate from each other, so that the two sets of consequences do
not bleed into each other
27
.
Many have argued that this is the basic purpose that our imagina-
tive capacities serve: evaluating past and future counterfactuals
28
.
These counterfactuals are used in planning, as in the example
above, and also in learning, as we evaluate possible ways that the
world could be. Our default tendency to be stuck on realitywhen
imagining fictional worlds makes a good deal of sense, considered
within this framework. In order to learn from an imagined scenario
or to use one (or more) in planning, these scenarios must be appropri-
ately similar to reality. This will allow the conclusions that we draw
27
See D. S. Weisberg & A. Gopnik, Pretense, counterfactuals, and
Bayesian causal models: Why what is not real really matters,op. cit.
28
For example, R. M. J. Byrne, The rational imagination: How people
create alternatives to reality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005); A.
Gopnik, The philosophical baby: What childrens minds tell us about truth,
love, and the meaning of life (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,
2009); C. Hoerl, T. McCormack & S. R. Beck, Understanding counterfac-
tuals, understanding causation (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press,
2011); M. Seligman, P. Railton, R. Baumeister, & C. Sripada, Navigating
into the future or driven by the past,Perspectives on Psychological Science,
8(2013), 119141; D. S. Weisberg, The vital importance of imagination
in M. Brockman (ed.), Whats next? Dispatches on the future of science
(New York: Vintage Books, 2009).
102
Deena Skolnick Weisberg
within the context of an imagined world to transfer appropriately to
the real world. To put the same point the other way around, if our
imagined scenarios were too different from reality, we would be
easily drawn into imagining unrealistic or unlikely scenarios that
would then not be helpful in navigating reality.
This argument provides additional insight into the issue of
imaginative resistance. If we accept that imagination is crucial to
planning, then a bias to stick closely to reality in our imagined repre-
sentations is a feature, not a bug, of the planning system. Because
engaging with fictional worlds is tied up with our ability to create re-
presentations that will be useful in visualizing our own futures, our
inability (or unwillingness) to consider extremely far-fetched possi-
bilities keeps the process of making plans appropriately realistic,
and hence appropriately useful.
From our examination of the development of these two aspects of
imaginative cognition, then, we can already begin to see some of the
important features of the adult imaginative system. We have also
learned that some of these features, like the ability to distinguish
among representations, seem to be basic properties of this system.
Others, like the ability or willingness to imagine unrealistic scenarios,
develop later, although even this fact gives us some insight into the
basic cognitive problems that our imaginative capacities allow us to
solve. Taking developmental psychology seriously can thus help to
advance the study of some aspects of philosophical study of aesthet-
ics. More broadly, engaging philosophers, psychologists, anthropol-
ogists, and others in dialogue about these issues in the best tradition
of cognitive science can lead to a deeper understanding of how and
why our aesthetic capacities work.
The University of Pennsylvania
deena.weisberg@psych.upenn.edu
103
The Development of Imaginative Cognition
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Young children spend a large portion of their time pretending about non-real situations. Why? We answer this question by using the framework of Bayesian causal models to argue that pretending and counterfactual reasoning engage the same component cognitive abilities: disengaging with current reality, making inferences about an alternative representation of reality, and keeping this representation separate from reality. In turn, according to causal models accounts, counterfactual reasoning is a crucial tool that children need to plan for the future and learn about the world. Both planning with causal models and learning about them require the ability to create false premises and generate conclusions from these premises. We argue that pretending allows children to practice these important cognitive skills. We also consider the prevalence of unrealistic scenarios in children's play and explain how they can be useful in learning, despite appearances to the contrary.