Children become more skeptical of what adults tell them, study finds


Children learn on their own through observation and experimentation. They also learn from what others tell them, especially adults and authority figures like their parents and teachers. When children learn something surprising, they seek out additional information by asking questions or testing statements. Previous research shows that whether Children exploring surprising statements from adults vary by age, with children over six years old being more likely to seek out additional information than children aged four and five years old. However, there is little research on Why children seek information in response to being told something surprising by adults. A new study published in child development by researchers at the University of Toronto and Harvard University aims to answer this question.

Research shows that as children get older, they become more skeptical of what adults tell them. This explains why older children are more likely to try to verify statements and are more intentional in their exploration of objects.”

Samantha Cottrell, Senior Lab Member, Childhood Learning and Development (ChiLD) Lab, University of Toronto

Through two pre-recorded studies, the researchers sought to clarify whether and why children explore surprising assertions.

In the first study, which was conducted in person between September 2019 and March 2020, 109 children between the ages of four and six were recruited from the Greater Toronto Area, Canada. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the lab was closed for in-person testing in March 2020, resulting in fewer tests than originally planned. The parents of 108 of the 109 children listed their child’s ethnicity: 49% described their child as white, 21% as ethnicity or mixed race, and 19% as Southeast Asian. Almost all parents responded to questions about their educational background, with 18% of children having parents who did not attend college, 34% having one parent who attended college, and 48% having two parents who attended. the university.

Children were presented with three familiar objects: a stone, 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 the children said the rock was hard. The children were then randomly assigned to be told something that contradicted their beliefs about the world (“Actually, this rock is soft, not hard”) or something that confirmed their intuition (“It’s true, this rock is hard”).

Following these statements, all the children were again asked: “So, do you think this stone is hard or soft?” Almost all the children who heard statements consistent with their beliefs continued to make the same judgment as before: that the rock was hard. On the other hand, few children who had been told that the rock was soft continued to make the same judgment as before. The experimenter then told the children they had to leave the room for a phone call and let the children explore the object on their own. The children’s behavior was recorded on video. The study found that most children, regardless of age, tested surprising claims. The authors hypothesized that previously reported age differences in children’s exploration of surprising statements may reflect changes in children’s ability to use exploration to test more complex statements. It could also be that with age the motivation behind children’s exploration changes, with younger children exploring because they believed what they were told and wanted to see the startling event and older children exploring because they were skeptical what they were told.

In the second study, which was conducted between September and December 2020, 154 children aged 4 to 7 were recruited from the same area as in the first study. The parents of 132 of the 154 children said their ethnicity was 50% Caucasian, 20% ethnic or mixed race and 17% Southeast Asian. Almost all parents responded to questions about their educational background, with 20% of children having parents who did not attend college, 35% having one parent who attended college, and 45% having two parents who attended. the university.

Over Zoom (due to Covid-19 restrictions), an experimenter shared their screen and presented each participating child with eight thumbnails. For each vignette, children were told that the adult had made a surprising statement (for example, “Rock is soft” or “Sponge is harder than rock”) and asked what a other child should do in response to this statement and why they should do it. The results indicate that older children (six and seven years old) were more likely than younger children to suggest an exploration strategy suited to the affirmation they heard (i.e. touch the rock in the first example, but touching the rock and the sponge in the second example). The results also show that with age, children increasingly justify exploration as a means of verifying the adult’s surprising assertion. These results suggest that as children age, even when they are also likely to engage in the exploration of surprising assertions, they become more aware of their doubts about what adults tell them and, therefore, , their exploration becomes more intentional, focused and effective.

“There’s 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’re told. They think about what they’ve been told and if they’re skeptical, they look for additional information that might confirm it. or invalidate it.”


Child Development Research Society


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