People tend to think children are gullible. Richard Dawkins wrote that “with so many mindbytes to be downloaded, so many mental codons to be replicated, it is no wonder that child brains are gullible, open to almost any suggestion, vulnerable to subversion…”. But now a study by Yale psychologists Candice Mills and Frank Keil suggests that cynicism – interpreting what other people say in light of their biases and self-interests – develops earlier than previously thought.
They presented sixty children from three age groups (average age 6 years, 8 years or 10 years) with a series of stories about a character who would win a prize if certain conditions were met. For example, in one story, a boy called Michael competes in a running race for a prize. Mills and Keil found that given an ambiguous outcome to the race, children aged 8 and 10 were, like adults, more likely to believe a character’s claims if they appeared to go against that character’s self-interest (e.g. Michael claiming he lost the race) than if the claims were in the character’s interests. In contrast, the 6-year-olds were more likely to believe a character’s claims if they were in that character’s interest (they naively assume that someone who wants to win a race, will).
In a second experiment, children were told at the end of a story whether a character’s claim was accurate or not. If inaccurate, the children were asked to choose whether it was a lie, a mistake or caused by the character’s unintentional bias.
Like adults, even six-year-olds were more likely to interpret false claims consistent with a character’s self-interest as a “lie”, and were more likely to interpret a false claim that went against a character’s self-interest as a “mistake”. That is, they showed signs of cynicism. But only older children seemed to appreciate, as adults do, that people can be unintentionally biased by their desires – only the 12-year-olds frequently chose that interpretation for a character’s false claims.
“Children may be more gullible than adults”, the researchers concluded, “…but the seeds of doubt are also present from an early age and develop dramatically in the elementary-school years”.
Mills, C.M. & Keil, F.C. (2005). The development of cynicism. Psychological Science, 16, 385-390.