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Young kids can’t help believing what they’re told

Young kids can’t help believing what they’re told October 20, 2010

My son turned 6 this weekend, and one of the games we played at his party was the classic Simon Says. I love that game! It never ceases to amaze me how easily the kids are fooled. Even at 5 going on 6, they seem to instinctively obey verbal instructions.

It reminded me of a study just published in Psychological Science by Vikram Jaswal, at the University of Virginia, and colleagues. They’ve been looking at the power of adult verbal testimony to lead children to disbelieve their own eyes.

For example, in one study the experimenter hid a sticker under one of two cups. If the kid guessed right, she won the sticker.  If the kid guessed wrong, the experimenter got it. The experimenter told the kid how much she wanted the sticker.

Then the experimenter told the kid which cup the sticker was under. Of course, she lied.

The kid, unsurprisingly, believes the experimenter – after all, the kid is just 3 years old. And then the kid is proved wrong.

The strange thing is that the kid doesn’t learn from her mistakes. She goes on believing the experimenter. And losing every time.

It seems that there’s something specially convincing about verbal testimony. When they re-ran the experiment, but with the experimenter using an arrow to point to the cup, instead of saying anything, the kids cottoned on much quicker. Well, mostly.

And when they re-ran it using either a video of the experimenter or audio, they found that the kids were more likely to keep believing the lie if they could see as well as hear the experimenter.

The researchers reckon this reveals a deep-seated, evolved trait the drives young kids to believe what they’re told.

“Children have developed a specific bias to believe what they’re told,” says Jaswal. “It’s sort of a short cut to keep them from having to evaluate what people say. It’s useful because most of the time parents and caregivers tell children things that they believe to be true.”

Other research they’ve done (not yet published) shows that kids will repeatedly believe an adult’s account of an event, rather than trusting their own eyes. And other evidence seems to show that adults also are susceptible to this – although less so than 3-year olds, of course.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with this blog’s regular fare of religion or non-religion. The answer is: not a lot! But it is interesting…


ResearchBlogging.orgJaswal VK, Croft AC, Setia AR, & Cole CA (2010). Young children have a specific, highly robust bias to trust testimony. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (10), 1541-7 PMID: 20855905

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


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