Study shows experts' attitudes influence what children believe

October 28, 2013
This is an example photograph shows a four-year-old standing between a woman dressed restrictively in an aggressive pose and a woman dressed warmly in a relaxed pose. Credit: The University of Texas at Dallas

Children are more apt to believe a nice, non-expert than a mean expert according to researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas.

In the study published in Developmental Science, the authors examine how preschoolers decide whom to believe when provided with two conflicting pieces of information given by a nice or mean adult.

Dr. Asheley Landrum, recent UT Dallas graduate and lead researcher on the study, said that past research shows recognize that different people know different things. However, less was known about how children decide between conflicting claims from alleged experts.

"We need to find the conditions under which children and adults are susceptible to accepting inaccurate information as true," Landrum said. "This means we need to determine when children use characteristics besides how competent someone is, like how attractive or nice someone is, to decide how much to trust that person. We can then develop tools to train children and adults to pay attention to characteristics that are more indicative of a trustworthy source."

Landrum and colleagues conducted a series of experiments to test how children decide who is a trustworthy source of information. A total of 164 children, ages 3 to 5, participated in the experiments by watching videos of people described as eagle or bicycle "experts." The first experiment questioned if children understood that some people have more knowledge about topics depending on their expertise, that is, eagle experts know more about birds than bicycle experts.

Both experts would say the same lines, such as "I found something used to help ducks swim," but they would provide conflicting follow-up information. For example, one would call it a "blurg," while the other called it a "fep." Children were asked which expert was more likely to have named the item correctly. By age 4, children recognized that experts on eagles knew more when asked questions about birds and experts on bicycles knew more when asked questions about vehicles.

The second and third experiments examined how niceness and meanness affected assigning knowledge to an expert. In one experiment, the children were presented with similar videos to the first experiment, but one expert appeared mean by crossing his arms and frowning, while the other appeared nice by smiling and using a friendly tone.

In the final experiment, only one person was identified as an expert and the other was expressly described as a non-expert about the topic. In both experiments, children preferred to learn information from the nice person, even when he was described as having no knowledge on the topic.

"Even when an expert clearly should know an answer to a question, children tend to trust claims made by nice people with no expertise over mean people with clearly relevant expertise," said Dr. Candice Mills, Landrum's advisor and co-author on the paper.

These findings suggest the power of seeming nice; in some cases, children could be more influenced by how nice someone is than by how much they know. According to Mills, associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, children may conclude that someone who appears nice is both trustworthy and competent, even if the friendly appearance is a carefully crafted act of manipulation.

"A child might encounter an experienced, yet ill-tempered doctor providing useful advice on how to treat flu symptoms, or a well-intentioned older peer providing unsafe advice on how to handle bullies," said Mills. "In these cases, children need to be able to put aside how nice or mean someone seems to be in order to learn to trust the right people."

People in roles where a child's trust is important, such as an instructor or first responder, may also benefit from this research, Mills said.

Explore further: Attractive adults gain the trust of children

More information:

Related Stories

Attractive adults gain the trust of children

October 28, 2013

An adult with an attractive face is more likely to gain the trust of children, new research has found. Published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, the study revealed both boys and girls are more prone to ...

Empathy helps children to understand sarcasm

October 8, 2013

The greater the empathy skills of children, the easier it is for them to recognize sarcasm, according to a new study in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Preschoolers know good vs. bad sources of info

March 22, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—Young children are not like sponges just soaking up information. They can actively evaluate what people know and go to the "experts" for information they want, reports a Cornell study published in a special ...

Recommended for you

Cognitive skills differ across cultures and generations

April 25, 2017

An innovative study of children and parents in both Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, led by University of Cambridge researchers Michelle R. Ellefson and Claire Hughes, reveals cultural differences in important cognitive ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.