by Sara Haga and Kristina Olson

Sometimes, especially when talking to our kids, we don’t tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We fib for many different reasons—from the noblest ones, like trying to spare them from pain, to the less noble, yet totally understandable ones, like when our time or patience to explain something is running out. When we tell our children that Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy visited our house, or more mundanely that if you swallow gum it’ll stay in your stomach for months, some of us feel a bit guilty while others get a good laugh. Researchers have long been interested in the gullibility of young children—will they believe just anything?

Some work suggests they just might! In one study by Elizabeth Boerger and her colleagues, children were introduced in their classrooms to a “Candy Witch” who traded candy for toys when kids were sleeping during Halloween night. For some kids, the parents were involved in the experiment too, and staged the visit, switching candy for toys. The researchers found that around 80% of the children ended up believing that the Candy Witch was real (even 6-7 year olds!), even if their home hadn’t been visited by the witch. Experiences and studies like these make us wonder whether children are completely gullible. But ok, really, will they believe just anything?

Unlike the study above, a study by Kang Lee and colleagues suggests children might not believe just anything. The researchers in this study introduced children to a young adult (actually an actor hired by the research team) who was reading a book with a ghost on its cover. While the actor was reading that book, the experimenter completed another task with the child then suggested they take a break to have some juice. The experimenter placed a glass on the table and asked the child to go with her to fetch the juice. When they returned the glass was broken and the actor was still reading the book. Seemingly surprised, the experimenter asked what had happened to the glass. The actor replied that the ghost from the picture book had picked up the glass and dropped it to the floor. The actor then left and the experimenter asked the child: “Who do you think really broke the glass?”. The majority of 5 and 6 year-olds in this and similar situations answered that it had been the actor and not the ghost, who had broken the glass, suggesting that kids won’t believe just any old thing. The key difference here might be that children understood that the actor was trying to get out of blame or they might have thought that a cover of a book cannot suddenly become real.

Lots of other work too suggests children seem to understand they shouldn’t take all information from an adult at face value. For example, when children hear an adult who has been mistaken about several facts (e.g., calling a shoe a boat), they understand they should be skeptical of that adult going forward. So they understand that not all sources, not even all adult sources, should be assumed to be reliable.

Taken together this work suggests that children are not defenseless believers of just anything adults tell them. They might be more gullible or open to other people’s testimony in some domains, especially those in which they are less knowledgeable. For example, they are led to believe in all sort of things they cannot see—from the roundness of the earth to the germs that populate public restrooms. And this is a good thing—in fact our education system relies on children learning from other sources of information. But children have also shown remarkable signs of being critical believers of the information that is passed onto them, as in the Candy Witch situation above. In our own lab this is a topic we have become more and more interested in—how do children decide when they should go with their gut and ignore the people around them who are insisting silly things like the reality of ghost versus when they should doubt their own knowledge and adopt the arguments adults around them are making as in the case of hearing that the world is round despite their experience that seems to suggest otherwise.

So why do children believe in what we tell them about Santa Claus, if they won’t even believe in ghosts? Well, they have good reasons for doing so. There is a lot of evidence out there about Santa—he appears at shopping malls and is treated as if he is real by scores of people there. Children also have the testimony of many different people all corroborating in stories of his existence. Often, children even have concrete evidence—the cookies that appeared the night before are gone and in their place are loads of presents. The latter might not only provide evidence but motivation to continue to believe. As adults, we also struggle to balance being too impressionable, doubting our own beliefs when someone disagrees with them, or being too skeptical, having a hard time believing others at all. Perhaps the right balance could be summarized as being intellectually humble –open to other people’s beliefs so that we can learn new things from them (even if we can’t see them), while maintaining a critical perspective.

Copyright 2014 Sara Haga and Kristina Olson

Sara Haga is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Washington investigating the developmental origins of intellectual humility, funded by the Fuller Theological Seminary /Thrive Center in concert with the John Templeton Foundation. Kristina Olson is an assistant professor at the University of Washington and director of the Social Cognitive Development Lab. Follow the lab on Twitter @scdlab .

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