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Louisville Seminary Professor Brad Wigger Finds Imaginary Friends (and more) from Around the World

Nov 05, 2014
Christian education and child development expert completes "serious  research into a playful subject" in several countries.

Brad WiggerIn the first cross-cultural study of its kind, Dr. J. Bradley Wigger, Second Presbyterian Church Professor of Christian Education and child development expert at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has concluded a tour of five countries talking with children about their imaginary friends. Since 2010, Wigger (pictured to the right) has interviewed children in the United States, Kenya, Malawi, Nepal and most recently, the Dominican Republic - over 500 children in all – as part of his John Templeton Foundation and Oxford-funded project, “Theory of Mind and Invisible Beings in Childhood.” The aim of the study is to examine the manifestation and influence of invisible (or “imaginary”) friends on children from different cultures and countries.

Among children 3 to 9 years old, Wigger found the highest percentage of imaginary friends in the Dominican Republic. Over a third of them had one at the time of the interview with more than 40 percent describing an imaginary friend at some point in their lives. Yet, with only 5 percent of Nepali children having them, cultural factors, Wigger believes, play an important role.

In addition to talking with children about imaginary friends, he also interviewed them about other kinds of invisible beings, depending upon the culture—God, the ancestors, spirits, angels, fairies, various Hindu deities and even Santa Claus. Conducting what cognitive psychologists call “theory-of-mind” tests, Wigger explored the ways children think about the minds of these extraordinary figures. For example, would God (in Malawi) or Vishnu (in Nepal) know what’s inside a closed box even if nobody showed them the contents? Young children thought everyone—whether an angel or dog--would know the contents. But older children (6 and up) were more discriminating: God or Vishnu would still know, but fairies or spirits or imaginary friends were less likely, while a dog or another person certainly would not. This pattern persisted through all the cultures studied.

“Children around the world have no trouble reasoning about the minds of invisible beings,” says Wigger. “They do it as naturally as they think about the minds of people.”

Wigger sees important implications for understanding children’s development, their religious and moral formation, and the imagination. Children with imaginary friends are a special case—they are making up their own characters (not just the cultural ones) and are practicing different points of view all the time.

“There may be something about a well-developed imagination that helps people negotiate life and relationships better,” Wigger said.

Wigger hopes to publish the findings of the project both in research journals and eventually in a book on the subject. For more on Wigger’s Invisible Friends project, see his website, www.seethroughknowing.com, or contact Wigger directly at (502) 865-3411 or bwigger@lpts.edu.

About Louisville Seminary
Founded in 1853, Louisville Seminary offers an inclusive and diverse learning community, welcoming students from wide ecumenical backgrounds while maintaining its long, historic commitment to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). Louisville Seminary is committed to building bridges across the world's religious, racial and cultural divides. It is distinguished by its nationally-recognized marriage and family therapy and field education programs, the scholarship and church service among its faculty and a commitment to training women and men to participate in the continuing ministry of Jesus Christ. For more information, call (800) 264-1839 or log into www.lpts.edu.

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