Science/Tech

Are Children Gullible? By Age 5, Kids Begin To Doubt Confident Liars

Kids gullible
By the age of 5, children become wary of information provided by people who make overly-confident claims. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

At what age do we become skeptics? Perhaps it’s as early as kindergarten, claim researchers at Concordia University and the University of British Columbia. By the age of 5, a new study finds, children become wary of information provided by adults making false, though, overly-confident claims. “Even though kindergarteners have a reputation for being gullible, they are actually pretty good at evaluating sources of information,” said Dr. Patricia Brosseau-Liard, lead author of the study.

Most of us know what a con game is, but we often forget that “con” simply stands for “confidence.” Essentially, a con artist tricks her victim by first gaining his confidence (some would say inflating his confidence) so much so that his judgment becomes warped, and he can be more easily swindled by, say, a get-rich-quick scheme. While many con artists still work their magic in person, contemporary versions often involve Internet scams, including plans proposed by a catfish — someone who creates a false identity on social media in order to deceive others. Lesson learned: Beware the so-called friend of a friend!

The Current Study

To understand how age impacts gullibility, Brosseau-Liard and her colleagues designed an experiment where young children would weigh two cues to a person's credibility — confidence and prior accuracy — in order to decide what to believe. For the study, the researchers recruited 96 children between the ages of 4 and 5. The researchers showed their subjects short videos of two adults talking about familiar animals.

One of the adults made true statements about the animal in a hesitant voice: "Hmm, I guess whales live in the water?" The other adult made false statements in a confident voice: "Oh, I know! Whales live in the ground!" Next, the kids watched videos of the same two adults speaking about unknown animals. The previously confident speaker would state facts with confidence, and the previously hesitant speaker remained hesitant while stating different facts.

Here, the researchers asked the children: Which adult do you believe?

The children who were closer to the age of 4 split evenly down the middle: They were as likely to believe the confident liar as the hesitant truth-teller. But when it came to the children nearing the age of 5, they were more likely to believe the previously accurate but hesitant adult rather than the confident liar.

"Our study gives us a window into children's developing social cognition, skepticism and critical thinking,” explained Brosseau-Liard, who also suggested a year can make a big difference in terms of a child's development and ability to critically consume information.

Source: Brosseau-Liard P, Cassels T, Birch S. You Seem Certain but You Were Wrong Before: Developmental Change in Preschoolers’ Relative Trust in Accurate versus Confident Speakers. PLoS ONE. 2014.

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