January 3, 2011


FROM Religion Today


When Do Children Develop Skepticism?

Vikram Jaswal answers.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
One of young children’s most adorable qualities is their credulity. They really seem to believe most of what they are told—from the incredible (Santa Claus exists!) to the counterintuitive (the Earth is round even though it looks flat) to the normally unobservable (people have lungs). But when you stop to think about it, children’s willingness to believe even more mundane facts conveyed through language is pretty remarkable. Why should they take your word for it that they live in a place called “Virginia,” or that the four-legged animal licking their face is called a “dog?”
In some recent research, my students and I showed that 3-year-olds are much more likely to trust what they are told than the same information conveyed to them through another means. Some kids heard an adult claim that a sticker was in one cup when it was actually in another; other kids saw the adult place an arrow on the empty cup. On the very first trial, all children in both situations looked in the cup indicated by the adult. This probably reflects a generic (and appropriate) expectation that adults are normally helpful in these situations. In later trials, children who saw the adult use an arrow to mark the empty cup quickly switched to searching in the opposite one. But those who heard her claim it was in the empty cup continued to look there. Some children did so eight times in a row! We argued that in addition to whatever general trust 3-year-olds have that others will behave in helpful (or at least benign) ways, they have developed a specific bias to trust what they are told.
And this is actually a good thing. Most of the time, adults do their best to tell children the truth (or what they believe to be true), and so a default bias of this type is adaptive: If children can just believe what they are told, they don’t have to go through the time-consuming and sometimes impossible task of evaluating the veracity of everything they are told. A number of thinkers have pointed out that without such a bias to believe at least initially, communication would break down for adults, too. We would never be able to learn about things outside our own experience, for example. And some clever research by Dan Gilbert of Harvard University and his colleagues suggests that adults do initially accept as true information they are presented (in those studies, through text), though they can later go back to “unaccept” that information.
So, when do children develop skepticism, or the ability to “unaccept” what they are told? The short story is that it’s complicated. If you’re just interested in when they would no longer be fooled in the sticker game, we have data (as do others) that, as a group, 4-year-olds have little difficulty ignoring or doing the opposite of what they are told in that situation. But of course, there is enormous variability in how credulous children (and adults) are. A few 3-year-olds in our study stopped believing what the adult told them after being misled once (though most continued to be misled). In fact, using other techniques, Melissa Koenig of the University of Minnesota and Cathy Echols of The University of Texas at Austin have identified what might be considered skepticism in some infants as young as 16 months. In that work, an adult referred to a dog as a “ball,” for example, and some infants objected in various ways (e.g., shaking their heads, looking quizzically at their mothers, saying “no”).
Our research now centers on understanding why some kids are more skeptical than others of the same age. What kinds of experiences are necessary to foster critical thinking? What other cognitive skills are related to skepticism? As a preview, we have some preliminary data suggesting that 3-year-olds who are higher in what is called “inhibitory control” tend to be more skeptical. For example, those children who can make a response different from the one they would normally make (think of the game “Simon Says”) tend to be more wary of misinformation provided by an adult. This fits in well with the possibility that children have a default bias to believe, which must be inhibited to respond skeptically. Will training inhibitory control strategies (as one innovative preschool curriculum, Tools of the Mind, attempts explicitly to do) have an effect on critical thinking? Stay tuned!
Vikram Jaswal is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.


Old Weird Libra said...

That Tools of the Mind reference leads to some very interesting research. A good follow up.