Source: Tyler Merbler / Wikimedia
The past few months have been rich in extraordinary events: a US president attacking the legitimacy of a US election, senators and congressmen refusing to certify an electoral vote, an armed insurgency on Capitol Hill. News commentators have called these events “unimaginable,” which is a strong word. Only logical contradictions, like a round square or a four-sided triangle, are truly unimaginable. But events like the Capitol uprising are unimaginable in a different way: They lie outside the realm of ordinary possibilities.
Psychologists who study how people reason about possibility find that our sense of what might happen is severely limited by our beliefs about what should happen. When we consider future events or hypothetical results, we focus on events that meet our expectations and ignore those that do not. Events that defy expectations are not simply seen as improbable; they are considered impossible and therefore unworthy of consideration. We do not contemplate the possibility of an armed insurgency following democratic elections and then dismiss this possibility as improbable. We never consider it at all.
Our tendency to view unusual events as impossible, rather than just improbable, has its roots in childhood. Young children are skeptical of any event that violates the norms and regulations to which they are accustomed. They claim that it is not possible to change customs, traditions, cultural associations, rules of etiquette or gender roles. They deny that a child could sing “Jingle Bells” at a birthday party, wear pajamas to the grocery store, or wear a swimsuit to school. They deny that adults can get together and change dogs’ names to “wugs,” change the color of traffic lights from red to purple, or change which side of the road we’re driving on. They claim that it is not possible to eat food with your hands, take a bath with your shoes on, or ask for something without saying âpleaseâ. And they reject the idea that a boy can wear makeup or a girl can play soccer.
These judgments are not absolute. Young children show some recognition that violations of social norms are not really impossible, like violations of physical laws. When explaining why people conform to social regularities, they cite reasons rather than causes – desires and permissions rather than abilities and abilities. When asked if anomalous events might occur on another planet, they agree that social anomalies might more often than physical anomalies, conceding that citizens of another planet might call dogs “even wugs”. ‘they couldn’t float rocks in water.
While young children show some awareness that social abnormalities are possible, this awareness is largely implied. It manifests itself through explanations or thought experiments and usually only when children are asked to consider many different abnormalities. If you categorically ask preschoolers if a specific social anomaly is possible, most will say no. They claim the anomaly hasn’t happened in the past and won’t happen in the future, no matter who is involved or why.
You might be concerned that kids who claim that a social anomaly can’t happen are really meaning it shouldn’t – that they are commenting on the permissiveness of the anomaly rather than its possibility. But that’s part of the point. If children’s understanding of what might happen is based on what they expect to happen, then they should confuse possibility and eligibility early on, before learning to think about their own. expectations.
My colleague Jonathan Phillips and I investigated whether children really confused possibility and eligibility by asking them to rate two dimensions of the same expectation-defying events. We introduced preschool and elementary-aged children to a variety of unexpected events.
Some broke moral rules, like stealing candy; some violated social conventions, such as wearing pajamas to school; and some have violated physical laws, such as floating in the air. For all types of violations, we asked children if the event could happen in the real world or was impossible and if the event was right or wrong.
We found that older children, like adults, differentiated both issues and violations. When asked about the possibility, they claimed that a person could not violate physical laws but could violate moral rules or social conventions. When asked about legality, they argued that it would be wrong to break moral rules but not wrong (or just as wrong) to break social conventions or physical laws. Preschoolers, on the other hand, claimed that it was both impossible and unacceptable to commit any of these violations. They claimed that floating in the air is not only impossible but also bad and that stealing candy is not only bad but also impossible. Even minor offenses, such as wearing pajamas to school, were judged just as harshly; preschoolers said they couldn’t and shouldn’t happen.
Adults recognize that unconventional or immoral actions are possible, but we too amalgamate these distinctions when we make instant judgments. Imagine, for example, that a friend is driving to the airport when his car breaks down. How could he get to the airport in time to catch his flight? Could he hail a taxi? Could he teleport directly to the airport? Could he squeeze in public transport? You probably agree that he could hail a cab and disagree that he could teleport, but what about the third option, which involves deception and scam? ? With time to think it over, most people concede that this option is possible, but under the pressure of time we pass the opposite judgment, saying that it is impossible to squeeze in public transport. We need to think about deviant behaviors to recognize that they are, in fact, possible.
Should and could not are thus related in the way we think about possibility. It takes learning and thinking to differentiate the two. Consider your own reaction to learning that the United States Capitol was invaded in early January. Chances are the first question you asked yourself was not “Why did this happen?” But “How could this have happened?” – a question about the possibility. We know, by reflection, that moral rules can be broken, but we don’t expect them to be, and when they are, we focus on the possibility of the transgression before thinking about the motives and by means of transgressors. Deviant behavior is often simply beyond the reach of the ordinary imagination. We instinctively expect our neighbors and compatriots to behave better.