Egocentrism and Animistic Thinking

Isn’t it funny how children think non-living objects, like cars, grass, or a toy have living qualities and behave just like humans?  This thought process usually happens through the preoperational stage, or when a child is about 2-7 years old.  These children often may think the sun is shy if the weather is cloudy, or a parent could easily convince the child the TV is tired and has to be turned off.  This way of thinking, or believing inanimate objects have lifelike qualities, is called animistic thinking, and, according to Piaget, is a result of the Preoperational child’s egocentrism.

Our book defines egocentrism as “the failure to distinguish others’ symbolic viewpoints from one’s own.”  In other words, children can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and believe everyone else thinks exactly as they do.  This means seeing things from another’s viewpoint is actually a developed ability.  In order to prove a chid’s egocentrism, Piaget set up his three-mountains problem, where he set up a small and medium sized mountiain in front of a large mountain.  Because it appeared as three mountains to a child looking at the mountinas from the front, a child in the preoperational stage would say looking at the mountains would look identical from the opposite side, although in reality it would only appear as one large mountain. 

This egocentrism also leads young children to think non-living objects think, feel, and act just like humans, or think in an animistic way.  Animistic thinking explains why children think the sun can be shy or the TV can be tired; and can prove quite useful to parents looking for a simple explanation to give to this especially inquisitive group of children.  Piaget further linked animistic thinking and egocentrism when he discovered that even though children of this age can distinguish between living and non-living objects, they still assign these inanimate objects humanisitc qualities.  It is also interesting to note that when children cannot explain an event, they attribute the event to magic, although the belief in the supernatural is “flexible and appropriate,” and is assigned only when needed.

It is easy to see that magical and animistic thinking can be detrimental to accommodation, as the unexplained can simply be categorized in the “it’s just magic” schema.  However, this thinking can also be helpful to children so they don’t get extremely overwhelmed by what they don’t know.  It can also be helpful to parents, as discussed earlier.  Although egocentric and animistic thinking eventually becomes less common as a child continues to develop and learn, it is important in understanding the way a child thinks and how this thinking affects their consequent actions.  

Mike Angerbauer

Berk, Child Development Eighth Edition


~ by Mike Angerbauer on October 31, 2009.

7 Responses to “Egocentrism and Animistic Thinking”

  1. When I was little my mom used to let me bring all of my stuffed animals into our basement during tornados so that we could help eachother not be scared. It is interesting to think about how parents help put these animistic idea in children’s heads. Animistic thinking helps expain and lighten a lot of situations for children.

  2. can childern also acquire fears and phobias through this thinking process?

  3. This pretty much would sum up the evolution of religion. From mans simple mind 35,000 years ago, to animism, totenism, shamanism, and dieties. We can watch the evolution of religion in the growth of our children. Unfortunately too many adults are never able to set aside the last fantasy.

  4. Some psychologists need to take a ride into the real world…when they speak of egocentrism as “the failure to distinguish others’ symbolic viewpoints from one’s own.” Children are usually quite social and are able to understand much what adults have forgotten to understand. Why is their the obsession to destroy each person’s ego and the qualities of each ego? Could it be that society has become so dysfunctional that the religious upbringing deforms, thwarts the thinking process? If there are institutions who fail to distinguish others’ symbolic and real life viewpoints they are the religious institutions who gather together billions of people in an endeavour to erase each ego. Maybe it is time that psychology and psychiatry begin to research the incurable damage that is being done to the human being from early childhood within the religious dogmas? There is nothing wrong with the ego, it is your natural inherited defense system. Maybe accepting each person with its own inherit special ego would allow for diversity instead of imposing the herd mentality that enslaves the ego and would indeed fail to distinguish others’ symbolic vieuwpoints from one’s own.
    PS…granite is living is quartz…so is…many more days the sun hides behind the clouds and is sad. Goodgrief people. Speaking in metaphores and personifications is as old as humanity itself. Get your history updated.

  5. From a religious perspective, it’s not that having an ego is wrong for the reasons you brought up but it’s just when it gets in the way of doing important things like serving others, showing how much we may need help, forgiving others, worshiping in the church without feeling like people are watching us and not afraid to get on our knees while doing so, etc.. it’s usually that first step that is hardest.. Sometimes God allows some of us to go through certain hardships to break the negative side of our egos and to be able to relate with others going through similar situations… that is essential in the Christian walk- to rely on God more and trust Him with uncertain situations.. so that He is able to take them and do some pretty amazing things and make us more like Him in the process. :)

  6. thanks alot for such a great article if i may call it. its definitely gonna help me take my child growth and development exam in 2 weeks time.

  7. I’m 14 years old. (turning 15 in June) I have animistic thinking when my younger sister jokes about saying that she’ll torture her stuffed animal and that she’ll cut the stuffed animal’s head off and just by her saying that I start crying a lot. Why do I feel this way?

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