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The Development of Children's Prelife Reasoning: Evidence From Two Cultures


  • The authors would like to thank Jesse Bering, Paulo Sousa, and E. Tom Lawson for discussion of ideas and feedback; H. Clark Barrett for making research in the Shuar village possible; Carolina Pasquel for translating study materials and transcribing interviews; Erika Salomon and Laura Jean Nelson for coding data; and Gena Steffens for drawing the study pictures. The authors would also like to thank the Yanapuma Foundation as well as the educators and families in Ecuador who participated in this research. Lastly, the authors would like to thank K. Mitch Hodge, Elisa Järnefelt, Hillary Lenfesty, Josh Rottman, Rebecca Seston, and Hayley Smith for their comments on earlier versions of this article.
  • The research in this article was supported by European Commission Project Grant 43225 (PhD Fellowship awarded to NAE), National Science Foundation Project Grant 1007984 (grant awarded to DK), and John Templeton Foundation Project Grant 12682 (junior research grant awarded to NAE). The views expressed in this article are those of the authors.


Two studies investigated children's reasoning about their mental and bodily states during the time prior to biological conception—“prelife.” By exploring prelife beliefs in 5- to 12-year-olds (N = 283) from two distinct cultures (urban Ecuadorians, rural indigenous Shuar), the studies aimed to uncover children's untutored intuitions about the essential features of persons. Results showed that with age, children judged fewer mental and bodily states to be functional during prelife. However, children from both cultures continued to privilege the functionality of certain mental states (i.e., emotions, desires) relative to bodily states (i.e., biological, psychobiological, perceptual states). Results converge with afterlife research and suggest that there is an unlearned cognitive tendency to view emotions and desires as the eternal core of personhood.