Even if they say they do, children don’t necessarily believe everything adults tell them!
A new study, published in Child Development, has shown that children as young as between four and seven years old can interrogate claims made by adults.
“The research shows that as children age, they become more sceptical of what adults tell them,” says lead author Samantha Cottrell, senior lab member from the Childhood Learning and Development (ChiLD) Lab at the University of Toronto, Canada.
“This explains why older children are more likely to try to verify claims and are more intentional about their exploration of objects.”
The researchers ran two experiments to investigate how children respond to being lied to.
In the first experiment, 109 children aged between four and six were tested in person by a researcher.
They were shown three objects – a sponge, a rock and a hacky sack – and asked whether they thought the rock was hard or soft. All children said that the rock was hard.
The researcher then either confirmed their belief, agreeing that the rock was hard, or contradicted it (“Actually, the rock is soft”).
The kids were then asked again whether they thought the rock was hard or soft.
Most of the children whose claim was contradicted then agreed that the rock was soft, while almost all of the children who’d had their hard-rock belief affirmed by the adult stuck to it.
The researcher then pretended to take a phone call and left the room. Kids’ behaviour was recorded by video camera.
While alone, most of the kids who’d been surprised with the soft-rock information, tested it, examining the rock themselves, and revealing the falsehood.
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The second study tested 154 children, aged between four and seven, over Zoom.
Children were shown eight different vignettes, and asked what another child should do when presented with an adult making a surprising claim (like “the sponge is harder than the rock”).
Older kids were more likely to suggest strategies more closely targeted to the claim they heard – for instance, “they should touch the sponge and the rock”.
This suggests that, as they age, children become more efficient and intentional about testing claims when they doubt what adults are telling them.
“There is still a lot we don’t know,” says senior author Samuel Ronfard, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and lab director at the 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 sceptical, they seek out additional information that could confirm or disconfirm it.”
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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