Study Finds That Children Don’t Actually Believe Everything They Are Told

Child Thinking Confused

The study discovered that most kids, regardless of their age, engaged in testing surprising claims.

Older children are more likely to effectively test surprising claims made by adults.

Children learn by observing and experimenting on their own. They also gain knowledge from what others teach them, particularly adults and authoritative figures like parents and teachers. When children discover something surprising, they probe for further details by asking questions or verifying claims.

Previous studies have shown that children’s willingness to investigate adults’ surprising claims varies with age, with six-year-olds being more inclined than four- and five-year-olds to do so. However, little is known about the reasons why children ask questions after hearing something surprising from adults. Researchers from the University of Toronto and Harvard University have just released a new study in the journal Child Development that tries to provide an answer to this question.

“The research shows that as children age, they become more skeptical of what adults tell them,” said Samantha Cottrell, senior lab member from the Childhood Learning and Development (ChiLD) Lab at the University of Toronto.“This explains why older children are more likely to try to verify claims and are more intentional about their exploration of objects.”

Across two preregistered studies, researchers set out to clarify whether and why children explore surprising claims.

109 children aged four to six participated in the first study, which was carried out in person between September 2019 and March 2020 in the Greater Toronto Area of Canada. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the facility was closed for in-person testing in March 2020, resulting in fewer tests than expected. Of the 108 parents who provided information about their child’s ethnicity, 49% identified their child as White, 21% as Mixed Ethnicity or Race, and 19% as Southeast Asian. Almost all parents provided information regarding their educational history, with 18% of children having parents who did not attend university, 34% having one parent who attended university, and 48% having two parents who attended =.

Children were presented with three familiar objects: a rock, a piece of sponge-like material, and a hacky sack. An experimenter began by asking the children, “Do you think this rock is hard or soft?” All children stated that the rock was hard. Children were then randomly assigned to be told something that contradicted their beliefs about the world (“Actually, this rock is soft, not hard”) or told something that confirmed their intuition (“That’s right, this rock is hard”).

Following these statements, all children were again asked, “So, do you think this rock is hard or soft?” Almost all children who heard claims that aligned with their beliefs continued to make the same judgment as before: that the rock was hard. In contrast, few of the children who were told that the rock was soft continued to make the same judgment as before. The experimenter then told the children that they had to leave the room for a phone call and left the children to explore the object on their own. Children’s behavior was video-recorded. The study found that most children regardless of age engaged in testing surprising claims.

The authors hypothesized that previously reported age differences in children’s exploration of surprising claims might reflect developments in children’s ability to use exploration to test more complex claims. It could also be that with increasing age, the motivation behind children’s exploration changes, with younger children exploring because they believed what they had been told and wanted to see the surprising event, and older children exploring because they were skeptical of what they had been told.

In the second study, which was conducted between September and December 2020, 154 4- to 7-year-old children were recruited from the same area as in the first study. Parents of 132 of the 154 children reported their ethnicity as 50% White, 20% Mixed Ethnicity or Race, and 17% Southeast Asian. Nearly all parents answered questions about their educational background with 20% of children having parents who did not attend university, 35% having one parent who attended university, and 45% having two parents who attended university.

Over Zoom (due to COVID-19 restrictions), an experimenter shared their screen and presented each participating child with eight vignettes. For each vignette, children were told that the adult made a surprising claim (for example, “The rock is soft” or “The sponge is harder than the rock”) and was asked what another child should do in response to that claim and why they should do that. The results indicate that older children (six- and seven-year-olds) were more likely than younger children to suggest an exploration strategy tailored to the claim they heard (that is, touching the rock in the first example but touching the rock and the sponge in the second example). The results also show that with increasing age, children are increasingly justifying exploration as a means of verifying the adult’s surprising claim. These findings suggest that as children age, even when they are equally likely to engage in an exploration of surprising claims, they become more aware of their doubts about what adults tell them, and as a result, their exploration becomes more intentional, targeted, and efficient.

“There is still a lot we don’t know,” said Samuel Ronfard, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and lab director at the Childhood Learning and Development (ChiLD) Lab. “But, what’s clear is that children don’t believe everything they are told. They think about what they’ve been told and if they’re skeptical, they seek out additional information that could confirm or disconfirm it.”

Reference: “Older children verify adult claims because they are skeptical of those claims” by Samantha Cottrell, Eric Torres, Paul L. Harris and Samuel Ronfard, 12 September 2022, Child Development.
DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13847

The study was funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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