A new study published in Child Development looked at whether older children verify adult claims because they are skeptical of those claims.
“When children between four and seven years old are told something surprising, for example that a smaller object is heavier than a much larger object, they will frequently pick up those objects,” study author Samuel Ronfard, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto at Mississauga told us. “Older children engage in such exploratory behavior more frequently than younger children.”
Older children’s exploration also seems to be more targeted at testing what they are told, for example in the preceding example older children are more likely to pick up the two objects to compare their relative weight while younger children are more likely to only pick up the larger object.
The current study was designed to better understand why younger and older children explore in different ways.
“Across two studies, we wanted to test two hypotheses about the difference in the exploration of younger and older children observed in prior work,” Ronfard told us. “First, it could be that younger children struggle to verify comparative claims (i.e., this is heavier than that) but do not have trouble verifying simpler claims (i.e., this is very heavy). This was possible because prior work only examined children’s response to the more complex comparative claims.”
It could also be that with increasing age the motivation behind children’s exploration changes, with younger children exploring because they believed what they had been told and wanted to see the surprising event and older children exploring because they were skeptical of what they had been told.
“Children learn a lot of information from what other people tell them,” Ronfard told us. “A lot of what children are told cannot be explored directly.”
For example, children can’t seek first-hand evidence about historical events or distant planets. However, there are also many cases in which children can seek information to verify what they have been told. Studying how children respond to surprising claims they can test has implications for our understanding of how children resolve uncertainty and how they learn to reason about what they are told. This has implications for educational practice and cognitive developmental theory.
“We tested the hypotheses outlined above by asking children to tell us how a child should respond to simple and more complex claims,” Ronfard told us. “We also asked children to tell us why a child should respond in this way.”
Researchers found that older children (six and seven-year-olds) were more likely than younger children to suggest maximally informative exploration, for example picking up only one object when told that a small object is very heavy but picking up both objects when told that the small object is heavier than a much bigger object. They also found that with increasing age children are more likely to justify exploration as a means of verifying adult claims.
“These results don’t support either of the hypotheses we initially proposed,” Ronfard told us. “As we outline below, our results suggest another reason for the change in how children explore: older children may be better able to reflect on why they are skeptical of adult claims and that may allow them to better target how they test what they are told. If you know why you don’t believe something, you have a better sense of what to do to test what someone told you.”
These results confirm that children are not passive recipients of information. They think about what they are told and when they have doubts they often seek information to confirm what they have been told.
“In future work, we are looking to better understand how children’s ability to reflect on their uncertainty (why they feel uncertain) influence their exploration of what adults tell them,” Ronfard told us.
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com