Do children know whom to trust? A study in an upcoming issue of the journal Cognition attempts to answer the question. Researchers tested 187 three- to five-year-olds to see if they could figure out which of two sources of information was the more accurate — a mean but competent (i.e. accurate) person, or a nice but incompetent person? Would courtesy have an effect on whether the children believed the speakers? Are children less likely to trust mean people? The authors found that if forced to discern the difference in accuracy between the speakers, the toddlers could not tell who was accurate. Only when the toddlers were told who was accurate did they learn whom to trust. The News spoke with the paper’s lead author Angie Johnston GRD ’18, a Ph.D. student in the Yale Department of Psychology whose research focuses on how children learn, about the study.

In your own words, could you describe what the goal of the study was?

There were two goals actually. The first goal was to see how kids evaluate sources of information that vary in multiple characteristics. Specifically, we were looking at whether the sources were nice or mean and whether they were competent or incompetent. And the second goal was to see what the bigger picture was of how their evaluations of those characteristics would influence whom they trusted.

Q Were you surprised by the results?

A We were a little bit surprised. In [past research] there is this one characteristic of sources that even three-year-olds are good at paying attention to, which is if someone has given them correct information in the past. In the studies done by other people, the way this is done is you show preschoolers pictures of objects they know very well, like spoons and shoes and things like that. One person will provide accurate information calling it a spoon if it’s a spoon, a shoe if it’s a shoe; but the other person will provide inaccurate information. Maybe they will call the spoon a giraffe or something like that, and even preschoolers are really sensitive to this. So when that person tries to teach them something in the future, they will reject what the inaccurate person says. It’s kind of surprising that they are that sensitive to how important it is that people are accurate when providing that information. We thought, well, probably they will be able to pay attention to that even when the inaccurate person, the person who calls the spoon a giraffe, is nice and the accurate person, the person calling the spoon a spoon, was mean. What we found was that kids actually didn’t show a preference between the two sources. That surprised us because usually kids are really great at figuring out who is accurate and who is inaccurate. The first couple of studies in the paper showed that, and we spent the rest of the paper following up, trying to figure out what was going on.

Q Does this research fall in a larger body, or is this branching off in a new direction?

A It’s kind of compiling multiple different areas of research into one. We used some research that had been done by other people across the country that shows that sometimes kids have trouble using someone’s past behavior to make inferences about them. For instance, if they hear that someone provides accurate information, they might have trouble realizing, “Oh, that person is smart.” If they are mean in the past, they might have a hard time saying, “Oh, that’s a mean person.” If you think about it, it’s easy for us as adults, but it’s actually kind of hard to take these individual pieces of information about someone’s behavior and integrate them into a bigger picture about that person’s characteristics and traits. We used some of this research in our last study to build beyond this accuracy measure — whether witnessing people give incorrect or correct names for familiar objects — and we gave the kids the labels so they didn’t have to make the inference. We told them, “This person is smart. They give right answers. They know what things are called,” and we [say about] the other person, “She’s not smart. She doesn’t give right answers. She doesn’t know what things are called.” What we found when we gave them that little extra boost — and they understand what their behavior shows — then suddenly they trusted the smart person all the time.

Q What would be the future directions of this research?

A The future directions of this are figuring out why is it the case that these labels are helping kids so much, and what is it about the niceness that is distracting them? We would ideally like to have kids and adults evaluate information that would lead them to the most accurate conclusions, but it seems like sometimes this niceness information is distracting kids from the more relevant information about accuracy. We want to know if we can overcome that, and if there are other ways besides straight up telling the kid who’s smart and who is not smart because obviously they’re not going to have someone there every day telling them those sort of things.

Q What would applications of this research be in the far long-term?

A In the far long-term the general goal of this body of research is to figure out ways to design interventions so that even the youngest kids start to learn how to become better consumers of information because, if you think about it, we get tons and tons of information really easily on the internet, from TV, from all sorts of places. So getting information isn’t the problem; the problem is filtering through it, to figure out “What’s inaccurate? Who has bias? Does someone want me to believe this?” The goal of all this, and the far-reaching implication, is that if we can start to get a better picture of where weaknesses in evaluating information lie, we can start to address them really early, maybe even as early as preschool, to help better develop better critical consumers of information.