As adults, we’ve learned that simple text-based instructions are usually trustworthy. Imagine – if a stranger tells us to turn next left for London, but we come upon a street sign that states the opposite, most of us would probably assume the stranger had made a mistake, and we’d follow the sign.
In a new paper, researchers led by Kathleen Corriveau have investigated young children’s trust in instructions delivered orally, versus those originating in written text. Their finding is that as soon as children have rudimentary reading skills, they trust written text over spoken instruction.
The research involved a Y-shaped piece of apparatus: two differently coloured tubes leading to a cup beneath. One tube was always blocked. Dozens of boys and girls aged three to six had to decide in which tube to place a marble, in the hope it would reach the cup beneath, so that they’d earn a sticker.
To help them, the children received instructions from two puppets. On each trial, one puppet simply spoke their instruction (e.g. “I say blue. Choose the blue tube”) whereas the other puppet opened an envelope in which was written the colour of the other tube (e.g. “This says red. Choose the red one”). The children didn’t get feedback on their performance until the end of the study, so they couldn’t use results to judge which puppet to trust.
Regardless of age, the children who couldn’t yet read were indiscriminate in whether they chose to trust the purely oral advice, or whether to trust the puppet who read the text instruction. By contrast, the children with some reading ability showed a clear preference to trust the puppet who read from the envelope, choosing the tube they recommended over 75 per cent of the time.
Two further studies cleared up some ambiguities. For instance, it was found that young readers prefer to trust a puppet who reads the instruction from text, than oral advice from a puppet who gets their information from a whisper in the ear. In other words, the young readers weren’t simply swayed by the fact the text puppet was drawing on a secondary source. Young readers also trusted instruction from written text over information conveyed in a coloured symbol. This shows they’re specifically trusting of written text, not just any form of permanent, external information.
Corriveau’s team said their results showed that once children learn to read, “they rapidly come to regard the written word as a particularly authoritative source of information about how to act in the world.” They added that in some ways this result is difficult to explain. Young readers are exposed to a good deal of fantasy and fiction in written form, so why should they be so trusting of written instruction? Perhaps they are used to seeing adults act on the basis of written information – such as maps, menus, and recipes – but then again, pre-readers will also have had such experiences. This suggests there’s something special about the process of learning to read that leads children to perceive written instruction as authoritative.
Corriveau, K., Einav, S., Robinson, E., & Harris, P. (2014). To the letter: Early readers trust print-based over oral instructions to guide their actions British Journal of Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjdp.12046
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