In the Social Learning Laboratory, we research children’s use of social and cognitive information when learning about the world. During the preschool period, the child’s social horizon expands dramatically. Increasingly, they can learn from teachers and peers as well as from their immediate family. An issue central to both social and cognitive development is how children navigate these diverse sources of information. An understanding of the cues that facilitate learning in young children can inform classroom practices, interventions, and the provision of digital information.
For example, some of our research is interested in:
Children’s use of consensus information
How do young children select among informants when the trustworthiness of a particular informant is difficult to gauge – for example, when they have no history of interaction with the person and he or she makes claims that are difficult to check against relevant evidence? We find that under these circumstances, 3- and 4-year-olds look to other people’s reactions for guidance. They are more likely to accept an informant’s claim if it is endorsed by other people. Indeed, even when those other people leave, children continue to favor information provided by the person with whom the other people agreed as compared to someone with whom they disagreed.
We are currently following up on this basic finding in several ways. First we are interested in what children do when the majority opinion conflicts with the child’s prior knowledge or their own perception. Second we are interested in individual and cross-cultural differences in children’s reliance on the majority.
Preference for familiar informants
Infants treat familiar caregivers as a secure base. For example, when encountering an unknown person, they often seek emotional reassurance from their mother. Do children turn to a familiar caregiver not just for reassurance, but also when seeking information? Any preference for a familiar caregiver in these learning situations would have implications for early childhood education. In particular, given the high rate of teacher-turnover, children might be at a disadvantage when learning from a relative stranger. We find that most children show a preference for learning novel information from their mother over a stranger – and from a familiar teacher over an unfamiliar one. We also find that children show a preference for familiar-sounding informants (people who speak with their same accent). We are interested in looking at just how far children trust a familiar person – and in ways that we can make an unfamiliar (or unfamiliar-sounding) person seem trustworthy.
Preference for prior accuracy
Do children assess the reliability of their informants in any way beyond attachment and familiarity? In a series of studies, we have found that preschoolers are extremely sensitive to a speaker’s prior accuracy, but this sensitivity changes through the preschool period. When faced with two unfamiliar informants, 3-year-olds monitor for informant inaccuracy, mistrusting any informant who labels a familiar object incorrectly . Four-year-olds are more forgiving, preferring a relatively accurate informant who makes occasional mistakes over one who makes frequent mistakes. This memory for an informant’s record of accuracy is quite stable, lasting up to a week after children’s initial exposure to the informants.
What happens when familiarity and accuracy are placed in conflict? For example, which person do children trust when a familiar informant proves inaccurate or an unfamiliar informant proves accurate? In two studies, we have observed a marked developmental change: 3-year-olds’ preference for a familiar teacher or for a person with a familiar native accent is not affected by whether those informants prove inaccurate. By contrast, 5-year-olds prefer an unfamiliar teacher or a person with a non-native accent if they prove to be more accurate.
Children’s understanding of informants as experts
Do children judge informants who are knowledgeable as having positive traits in other domains? Such “halo effects” are a classic area of inquiry in social psychology, yet little is understood about whether young children are prone to them. We have examined this issue in the domains of causal reasoning and word learning. We find that 4-year-olds are sensitive to informant expertise, but only use it when the expert’s knowledge pertains to key internal properties of an object, rather than surface properties, such as color.
Two other studies show additional support for children’s sensitivity to informant’s expertise. When preschoolers are asked to discriminate between an accurate and inaccurate informant, they do not view accuracy as a global trait. For example, they do not claim that an accurate informant is physically “stronger”. Similarly, when given information about an informant’s luck and accuracy, preschoolers prefer to learn new information from a previously accurate informant, regardless of her luck status. Taken together, the results of these several studies show children are surprisingly astute. They think of expertise and accuracy as specific rather than global traits.
Learning from testimony in specific domains
Classic research in cognitive development has emphasized how children learn from their own first-hand experience. Yet children learn about many scientific and historical phenomena on the basis of other people’s claims and not on the basis of their own observations. Thus, we have examined how children differentiate the functions of the mind from the functions of the brain and how children understand the learning process. In both of these projects, we found that the claims that children hear affect how they view the phenomenon in question.
The majority of this line of research focuses on how children learn about historical figures. Because children cannot travel back in time, they can only learn about history from the claims made by other people. We find that children use their causal knowledge to identify the narratives as historical or fictional. Older children (aged 5-7) use fantastical (i.e. causally implausible) narrative episodes to conclude that protagonists in such narratives are fictional rather than historical. We are currently exploring how children construe religious narratives. For example, children hear religious narratives in which the protagonist performs acts that violate familiar causal principles (e.g., walks on water). Do children accept that the protagonist is a historical figure or do they assume that the narrative and the protagonist are simply fictional?