According to a recent study, children are more susceptible to believing claims from nice adults than from mean adults because they appear more trustworthy and competent — even if their friendly demeanor is an act.
Parent-child conversations can sometimes lead to power struggles between both groups as parents may doubt if their child grasps what they're saying. According to pbs.org, for kids, it’s not about what the adults say, but rather the way they say it. Children can more easily pick up on the way their parents are feeling than they can listen to their words. They tend to be observers and look at a person's face — reacting to an individual's body language and tone.
In the study published in Developmental Science, University of Texas at Dallas researchers knew that children are aware that different people know different things, but they wanted to investigate how children went about deciding between conflicting claims from alleged experts. A total of 164 children — ages 3 to 5 — participated in a series of three experiments by watching videos of people described as eagle or bicycle “experts.”
In the first experiment, the children were tested to see if they understood that some people have more knowledge about topics depending on their expertise. In this example, eagle experts clearly knew more about birds than bicycle experts. Both experts in the experiment would say lines such as “I found something used to help ducks swim." However, they would provide conflicting accounts as one would call it a “blurg,” while the other called it a “fep,” UT Dallas News Center reports.
The participants were asked which expert was more likely to name the correct item. By age 4, the children were aware that an expert on eagles would know more when asked questions about birds, and that an expert on bicycles would know more when asked questions related to vehicles.
Dr. Asheley Landrum, lead researcher of the study and a recent UT Dallas graduate, knew that children could recognize that different people know different things, which was confirmed in the first experiment. However, experiments two and three explored in-depth under what conditions kids would accept inaccurate information as true. “We need to determine when children use characteristics besides how competent someone is, like how attractive or nice someone is, to decide how much to trust that person,” said Landrum.
In the second and third experiments, the researchers examined how niceness and meanness affected kids assigning knowledge to an expert. The participants were first presented with similar videos to the first experiment, except one expert appeared mean by crossing his arms and frowning. The other expert seemed nice by smiling and using a friendly tone. In the final experiment, only one person was identified as an expert and the other one was described as a non-expert about the topic. In both experiments, the children preferred to learn information from the nice person, despite knowing he or she did not have any knowledge of that topic.
Based on these findings, children tend to be drawn by benevolence rather than expertise, which could lead them astray in many situations.
“A child might encounter an experienced, yet ill-tempered doctor providing useful advice on how to treat flu symptoms, or a well-intentioned older peer providing unsafe advice on how to handle bullies,” said Dr. Candice Mills, co-author on the study and Landrum’s advisor. “In these cases, children need to be able to put aside how nice or mean someone seems to be in order to learn to trust the right people.”
The researchers believe the findings of this study can benefit instructors, first responders, and even parents to help children better understand the characteristics of a trustworthy person.
In a different study led by Claremont Graduate University researchers, 31 highly effective teachers (measured by student test scores) in the worst schools of Los Angeles were observed for five years. The researchers’ number one finding? "They were strict," said Professor Mary Poplin, lead author of the study. "None of us expected that." The students were found to listen to teachers who would encourage them to work harder in a strict and straightforward manner.
Overall, children should be addressed in a way that is approachable, yet effective in getting the main point across.