Once in Contact, Always in Contact: Contagious Essence and Conceptions of Purification in American and Hindu Indian Children

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Cultural and age differences in responses to contamination and conceptions of purification were examined in Hindu Indian (N = 125) and American (N = 106) 4- to 5-year-olds and 8-year-olds, who were provided with stories of juice contaminated by contact with a cockroach, a human hair, and a stranger (via sipping). Children who rejected the juice as being fit to drink were probed to determine whether their rejection was based on material essence (reduced by boiling), association (reduced by color change), or spiritual essence (reduced by sipping by the mother). A majority of 4- to 5-year-olds showed some form of contamination response, as did the great majority of 8-year-olds. Younger children's judgments were often based on spiritual essence or association, whereas material essence was more important for the older children, particularly Americans. However, for many children in both cultures, no purifiers were effective. In keeping with Hindu culture, the Indian children responded significantly more strongly to stranger or cockroach contamination and, with increasing age, viewed contamination as more impervious to any kind of purification.

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