Trust: a five-letter word that has big implications, not only for our relationships with other people but also for the information they share with us.
Much of what we learn and know comes from social sources, like our community, family, and school, or from things we read, like books or the news. As adults, we’re adept social learners. We’re able to form beliefs based not just on evidence but also on information provided by people we trust. At the same time, we don’t trust everyone: Some people seem unreliable, insincere, or make claims that go against what we know.
But when do these skills form? How do children decide whom to trust and when to trust what others tell them?
Melissa Koenig, a professor in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), and Sarah Suárez, a doctoral candidate in ICD’s child psychology program, are examining how children develop the critical thinking skills they need to form trust and learn from others.
Ready to doubt
Koenig became interested in researching the development of trust when she was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, where she conducted a study that presented true and false statements to young children. She is now continuing this research at ICD in the Early Language and Experience Lab, which she directs. The lab aims to understand how children acquire knowledge from others and how they balance the benefits of learning with the risks of being misinformed.
“There was a claim in the literature that children didn’t really understand misinformation under the ages of four or five years old,” Koenig says. “We wanted to find out how young children reacted to misinformation and if their reactions depended on the source of information.”
To test this, Koenig and her colleagues have presented hundreds of infants and young children with speakers who didn’t call familiar objects, like a ball or shoe, by the correct name. They’ve found that even by 16 months old, infants are surprised by errors—they tend to stare longer at speakers who make false claims than at truthful speakers. They also occasionally try to correct inaccurate speakers by pointing to the object that correctly matches the name. And by two years old, children are likely to discount or fail to remember new things that such speakers say.
“We’re trying to correct a longstanding, flawed picture of child learners. Children aren’t just accepting whatever they’re told,” Koenig says. “Once you put aside the model of children being passive and credulous learners, it allows you to ask all kinds of questions about how we can support their evaluation of other people and the information they provide.”
The nature of knowledge
According to Suárez, who also works in the Early Language and Experience Lab, one factor that could influence how children judge the reliability of speakers is their understanding of what it means to know something.
“We’ve found that around ages 6 to 8, with minimal cues, children begin to discriminate between informants based on their ability to reason,” Suárez explains. “We’ve also found individual differences in children’s tendency to trust speakers, suggesting that individuals may come to conclusions based on their background.”
As part of her dissertation, Suárez is studying whether having a 30-minute conversation with children about the concept of knowledge will affect the type of speaker they trust.
“Having conversations with children about how you acquire knowledge might promote their ability to not only hold more sophisticated beliefs but also to guide how they learn from what others tell them.”
Conversations between parents and children are one context where an understanding of knowledge may develop. Suárez has started to explore whether parents’ beliefs—like whether they value independence over obedience—predict how critical children are of speakers who reason poorly about evidence. Her dissertation will further examine the connection between parental characteristics and children’s critical thinking and social learning skills.
Suárez received a national dissertation fellowship for her research. It’s the first experimental work that asks whether a family’s beliefs about knowledge relate to their social evaluations, conflict resolutions, and ultimately their learning decisions, Koenig notes.
While Koenig and Suárez’s studies focus on children, their findings may have implications for children and adults alike.
“Given our dependence on social sources of information, we want to understand how we can best help the most vulnerable. They might be children, but they also may be people who lack power and knowledge,” Koenig says. “No one knows everything, and no one is completely ignorant. We’re all engaged in certain power dynamics with people. We want to understand how we make decisions and how we could optimize those decisions.”
According to Suárez, determining how children develop trust and preferences for different types of speakers may help combat misinformation.
“If we’re aware of the tactics someone might use to convince you of something, we can be more aware and mindful of how misinformation can be spread,” she says. “You don’t have to mistrust everything you hear. But the question of where knowledge comes from is an important question for every learner to ask themselves.”
Koenig, M., Tiberius, V. (2017). Can children save us from the fake news epidemic? NBC News Think.
Suárez, S. & Koenig, M. (revise and resubmit). Learning from “thinkers”: Parent epistemological understanding predicts individual differences in children’s judgments about reasoners.
Harris, P., Koenig, M., Corriveau, K., Jaswal, V. (2018). Cognitive Foundations of Learning from Testimony. Annual Review of Psychology.
Stephens, E., Suárez, S., & Koenig, M.A. (2015). Early Testimonial Learning: Monitoring Speech Acts and Speakers. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, Vol. 48.
Koenig, M. A. & Harris, P. L. (2005). The role of social cognition in early trust. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, (10), 457-459.
Story by Cassandra Francisco | Photos by Dawn Villella except as noted | Spring/Summer 2018