Kids Like Learning From Confident Adults — But Only If Their Confidence Is Justified

Schoolboys Work with their Teacher in Elementary Class

By Emma Young

If you confidently tell a young child a fact, they’re likely to believe you. But you’d better be right — because if they find out that you were wrong, and should have known better, they’ll doubt not only your credibility but your intelligence too.

These are the implications of new work in PLOS One, led by Susan Birch at the University of British Columbia. It shows that children prefer to learn from people who are consistently confident, rather than hesitant, about what they say. However, even kids as young as four also keep a track record of a person’s accuracy, and make judgements about them on this basis.

“We now know that children are even more savvy at learning from others than we previously thought,” says Birch. “They don’t just prefer to learn from anyone who is confident; they avoid learning from people who have confidently given wrong information in the past.”

The vast majority of the information that we learn in life comes from other people, note Birch and her colleagues. But as we all differ in intelligence and areas of expertise — and often offer opinions rather than facts — to learn best, children would benefit from working out whom to trust.

Obvious confidence in a statement can certainly be a cue to its credibility. This might be expressed verbally (by introducing a statement with “I know…” rather than “I think…”, for example) and also in body language (nodding versus shrugging, for instance) and gestures.

However, confidence is not always a reliable guide to accuracy. (And to be clear, we’re talking about apparent confidence in a given statement, rather than confidence as a more general aspect of personality.) To optimise learning, we really need to identify people who are confident when it’s justified, and also hesitant when it’s justified — because they don’t really know the answer.

To explore how this skill might develop, Birch and her colleagues ran three studies on 662 children. They used videos of actors showing “justified” confidence or hesitancy or “unjustified” confidence or hesitancy, and gauged the children’s opinions of these individuals. In each case, an actor was either allowed or not allowed to look inside a box, which contained pictures that the child could not see. The video showed them then being asked what was in the box, and their responses. For example, the “informed, justifiably confident” actor nodded and immediately said something like, “It’s a rabbit. I know it’s a rabbit. It’s a rabbit for sure.” The “informed, unjustifiably hesitant” actor, who had been allowed to look, shrugged and said, “Umm, it could be a puppy… hmm… maybe a puppy? I’ll guess a puppy.” The researchers then probed which of the actors the children would prefer to learn new words from, and who they thought was smarter.

An initial study of children aged 3 to 12 found that from around the age of five, all preferred to learn from the justifiably confident individuals, and judged them as being smarter. To explore this further, the team then ran two follow-up studies on children aged 4 to 8. They used the same experimental design, but the first of the follow-ups directly compared responses to justified versus unjustified confidence, while the second looked only at justified and unjustified hesitancy.

The results were clear. From the age of four, all of the children placed more trust in the justifiably vs unjustifiably confident individuals. However, even the eight-year-olds failed to realise that someone who showed justified hesitancy (because they hadn’t been allowed to see inside the box) was more reliable than someone whose hesitancy was not justified (because they had indeed seen inside it). It seems, then, that sensitivity to this key clue to credibility takes much longer to develop. This delay might happen because a child’s brain is more wired to attend to clues than to misinformation, the researchers suggest.

“Taken together this set of experiments provides a more comprehensive demonstration of children’s complex and nuanced understanding of the mind while simultaneously illuminating specific limitations in their social cognitive understanding,” they write.

In the real world, of course, children are rarely given the opportunity to make such immediate clear-cut judgements about an adult’s credibility, and few of us are always reliable, or always unreliable. But this work does suggest that if you don’t want even a young child to judge you harshly (and anyone who has kids knows that they can be pretty unforgiving judges), you should be clear about when you really know something for a fact — and when you don’t.

Children’s understanding of when a person’s confidence and hesitancy is a cue to their credibility

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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