Children are remarkable judges of the people around them – studies have shown they're able to tell when someone is lying. But can they pick up on more subtle aspects of misinformation – such as when someone's telling only part of the truth, committing a "sin of omission"?
Now, in a paper published by the journal Cognition, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that kids can tell when someone isn't giving them the whole story – and they learn not to trust the information that person gives them.
Understanding sins of omission might sound like a sophisticated skill better suited for adults, but it's especially important for children. After all, a huge chunk of the information they're absorbing from their surroundings is coming from adults telling them how the world works.
"Much of what we know about the world comes from what others tell us. However, informants can be ignorant, mistaken, withholding, or even deceptive," the study authors wrote. "Rather than indiscriminately accepting all socially communicated information, learners need to know whom to trust."
The MIT researchers wanted to know whether young children were capable of this sort of evaluation. So they recruited 42 6- to 7-year-olds from a local children's museum, separated them into two groups and gave each group a different pyramid-shaped toy to play with. One toy had only a twisting purple knob that controlled a wind-up mechanism; the other toy looked almost exactly the same, purple knob and all, but also sported a button that triggered LED lights, a second button that caused a spinning globe to whirl and a third one that made music play.
After each group was allowed to play with its own toys, a "teacher" puppet demonstrated only one function to a naive puppet named Elmo: the purple twist knob. For the single-use toy, this didn't matter. For the souped-up, multi-functional toy, however, this meant there were three other fun uses that the teacher was leaving out.
Then the researchers asked each group to rate the teacher on a scale of 1 to 20. Sure enough, the kids who had a multi-functional toy with four fun things gave the teacher a much lower grade than the kids whose toy had only one function to begin with. Apparently, the children had noticed that the teacher hadn't given them the whole picture.
"Children understand that a teacher who provides accurate but incomplete information about a toy is less helpful than a teacher who provides accurate and complete information," the study authors wrote.
The scientists then ran a second experiment where they took 75 6-year-olds and did a slightly different experiment. Some kids were given the single-function toy to play with and later shown only about the purple twist knob; other kids were given the multi-functional toy and, as before, also shown only the purple twist knob. But the researchers also took a third group of kids, gave them the multi-functional toy and had the teacher show them all four activities.
After that round was over, the researchers gave all the kids a new, totally different toy – one that involved pulling a yellow tube out of a purple tube to make a squeaky sound. After the teacher showed the children how to do it, they were given three minutes to fool around with it.
Turns out that the children who were taught everything about their toy – whether it had one or four activities – took the teacher's word for it and played with the purple-yellow squeaking thing. But those who knew the teacher had shown them only one out of four functions in the first toy took the time to explore the new toy in a variety of different ways, as though they knew they should take the teacher's information with a grain of salt.
"Thus by six years of age, children keep track of others' informativeness; when an informant's credibility is in doubt, children engage in compensatory exploration," the study authors wrote.
There's a lesson in here for adults: Watch what you say to kids, because they're constantly evaluating you.
"When we teach children about the world," the authors write, "we also teach them something about ourselves."