We all have innate beliefs—whether it’s a belief in God or Christianity, the notion that good things come to those who wait, or the certainty that one’s actions will come back around and influence their future. While children seem more inclined to believe in things like Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, a new study published in Developmental Science found that children as young as four years old are motivated by the lattermost, that you get what you deserve: karma.

In order to make this discovery, the research team held several experiments, the first of which analyzed 20 different children who ranged from 4-6 years old. The experimenters told the kids that if a random coin toss landed with the right side up they would get an awesome prize and were also given stickers just for partaking in the experiment. But just before the toss, the team told the kids about two others that participated—one gave his stickers to needy children in hopes that his selfless act would boost his chances of winning, while the other threw her stickers away driven by the same belief. The kids were then asked which child was correct and given the opportunity to copy them.

Ultimately, the children believed in the karmic strategy over the strategy of throwing the stickers away. And of the 45% that chose to play copycat, almost all of them opted for the karmic strategy. It’s also important to note that religion played no part in whether the kids believed in karma or not.

The second experiment involved twice as many children (40), this time aged 5-6, who were shown cartoons about other children attempting to achieve a certain goal, using either karmic non-karmic strategies. One cartoon character explained why her karmic approach was best (that if you do something nice, something good will happen to you in return), while the other remained more skeptical (it’s good to do something nice for someone, but doesn’t motivate something good to happen to you too).

After being asked which character was correct, the children backed up the cartoon who favored karma. An additional control condition proved that these results were not due to generic bias for causal explanations, but specifically karma-related. The findings were still unrelated to the children’s religious background. And a third and final experiment with a similar age range showed that young children not only believe their good-doing will increase the odds of something good happening to them, but that someone else’s good-doing will as well.

Banerjee and Bloom, lead authors of the study, think that young children’s belief in cosmic karma is due to their early belief in social karma, or the notion that when you do someone a favor, they’ll most likely return it. Furthermore, according to the researchers, their findings, “support the view that notions of karma may be so cross-culturally successful because they capitalize on certain more generally social-cognitive propensities and heuristics for navigating our social relationships that are present and active early in development.”

This study goes to show that not all of kids’ time and energy are dedicated to believing in the Tooth Fairy and mermaids, but more abstract concepts like karmic justice—they’re smarter than we think and act on these early innate beliefs.

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