Young children are surprisingly discerning. By age three they are already more trusting of claims made by nice people. Slightly older and they also understand expertise: four- and five-year-olds realise that a person described as an eagle expert will have knowledge in related topics, such as birds in general and biology. This raises an interesting question – if it came to a choice between benevolence or expertise, what kind of person would a child trust?
Asheley Landrum and her colleagues first checked whether young children are able to prioritise relevant expertise. Forty-eight children aged between three and five years were introduced to a pair of male twins – one was an eagle expert, the other was a bicycle expert. Each expert stated the appropriate name for a series of obscure objects, some of which fell in their area of expertise, and the children had to say which name was correct. Three-year-olds struggled to favour names suggested by the relevant expert. Four- and five-year-olds showed a modest ability to prioritise the relevant expert’s suggestions.
A follow-up study with more young children provided the crucial test of whether they’d be more trusting of kindness or expertise. This time the same two experts were either nice or nasty, as conveyed by their body language, facial expression and tone of voice. Benevolence and expertise were counterbalanced so sometimes the eagle expert was nice, sometimes the bike expert. The children showed a clear overall bias for believing the suggestions of the nicer person (70 per cent overall). They only showed a preference for listening to the man with relevant expertise if he was also nice.
A third and final study was similar but this time the researchers set up a choice between a nice or nasty relevant expert, and a nice or nasty second man who was described explicitly as lacking any relevant expertise. This was to make sure that the children weren’t assuming that a nice expert could have knowledge beyond his stated field. Once again the children were swayed by niceness and this time paid even less attention to expertise (i.e. they chose the nice person’s answers 62 per cent of the time, and this only rose to 65 per cent if he was also an expert).
Landrum and her colleagues proposed a few explanations for these results – perhaps young children use benevolence as a cue for trustworthiness or competence. Maybe they weren’t thinking too hard and simply liked the nice man better, or disliked the nasty man, and this skewed their behaviour. Either way the researchers said this bias is “troubling” and could lead children “astray.” They added: “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.”
Landrum AR, Mills CM, and Johnston AM (2013). When do children trust the expert? Benevolence information influences children’s trust more than expertise. Developmental science, 16 (4), 622-38 PMID: 23786479
Toddlers won’t bother learning from you if you’re daft