Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Young Kids Know Who to Learn From

People quickly learn how to learn.

Much of what we know is learned from other people.  As young children, our parents and caregivers teach us about the world by talking with us, playing with us, and letting us watch what they do.  As we get older, we learn from teachers in school settings, and our peers as well.

 The quality of our knowledge directly affects how well we can solve problems in the world.  Because we have to rely so much on people around us to learn, it is important that we do a good job of figuring out who to trust to teach us well.  If we accept new information uncritically, then we run the risk of getting bad knowledge programmed into us.  

 This would seem to be a particular problem for children.  We often think of young children as being particularly trusting of others.  If children just accept everything they are told from people, then they run the risk of being filled up with lots of useless and false information.

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 An interesting paper in the June, 2012 issue of Child Development by Melissa Koenig examines this issue.  She looked at 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.  Her studies asked two questions.  First, are children in this age group able to distinguish between people who have good and bad reasons for what they believe? Second, can they use this information to decide who they would like to learn from?

 To explore the first question, children were shown videos of a person standing near a container like a box, backpack, or can.  They asked two possible teachers what they thought was in the container.  One teacher gave an answer with a good reason for believing that they knew truth.  For example, they might say, “There is an apple in the container.  I looked in the container and saw that there was an apple inside.”  The other teacher gave a bad reason for believing they knew the truth.  For example, they might say, “There are crayons in the box.  I like crayons, so that is why I want there to be crayons inside.” 

 All of the children in this study did a good job of distinguishing between good reasons and bad reasons.  The 4- and 5-year-olds were somewhat better than the 3-year-olds, but everyone generally figured out that they should listen to the person who had some more direct knowledge of what was in a container rather than guessing, hoping, or wanting a particular item to be in the container.

 In a second study, children saw similar videos as in the first study.  In this case, though, the same two potential teachers appeared on each trial.  One always gave good reasons for knowing what was in a container.  The other always gave bad reasons.  Later, children were given the opportunity to choose who they would like to give them information about what was in new containers.  In this study, children were far more likely to pick a teacher who had good reasons in the past than to pick  a teacher who had bad reasons in the past.

 This work suggests that even by the age of 3, children have a good sense of who is likely to know a piece of information, and they use that knowledge to guide them about who to listen to.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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