Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

"Can I Believe My Eyes?" Three- to Six-Year-Olds' Willingness to Accept Contradictory Trait Labels

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

"Can I Believe My Eyes?" Three- to Six-Year-Olds' Willingness to Accept Contradictory Trait Labels

Article excerpt

Children can learn a lot about the world through direct experience but must often rely on other people to acquire novel information (for reviews, see Gelman, 2009; Harris, 2007; Mills, 2013). In some situations, children's firsthand observations conflict with the claims of another person or informant. Under these circumstances, do children revise their own beliefs or reject informant testimony? In this study, we examined children's acceptance of testimony from an authority figure whose trait attributions about a story actor conflicted with their own observations and trait attributions about the actor.

Relatively few studies have assessed how children reconcile incompatibilities between their own knowledge and informant claims (Chan & Tardif, 2013; Clément, Koenig, & Harris, 2004; Jaswal, 2004; Jaswal & Markman, 2007; Lane, Harris, Gelman, & Wellman, 2014; Robinson, Champion, & Mitchell, 1999). In a study by Robinson and colleagues (1999, Experiment 3), 3- to 5-year-olds either saw and reported the contents of a container or were denied visual access to the container and guessed its contents. Afterward, participants heard a contradictory claim from an actor with or without visual access to the same container and were again asked to state what they thought was inside. At all ages, children reliably retained their initial statements when they had seen the contents and the actor had not, but switched their statements readily in the reverse situation. In another study, Clément et al. (2004, Experiment 2) presented 3- to 5-year-olds with two informants: one who labeled familiar objects, including their color, accurately and one who labeled them inaccurately. In one condition of relevance to the current study (i.e., the contradiction task), children listened as both the reliable informant and the unreliable informant labeled the color of another object incorrectly. Children were then asked to state the color of the object. At all ages, participants ignored the testimony of both informants and instead labeled the object according to the color that they perceived (i.e., the appropriate color). Taken together, these findings indicate that children do not automatically defer to contradictory informant claims, but, rather, do so in situations where they lack direct access to information.

In situations that involve inductive reasoning about category membership rather than perceptual judgments, children readily change their beliefs. In one study (Jaswal, 2004), 3- to 4-year-olds were shown a keylike item and inferred that it would be used like a key. When the experimenter labeled the item a "spoon," children reported that it should be used to eat food. Thus, participants used the experimenter's category label to infer that their own classification was incorrect and that appearance can be misleading about category membership. Four-year-olds were less willing than 3-year-olds to accept the label, possibly because the former inferred that the informant was ignorant. Indeed, after hearing a disclaimer (i.e., "You're not going to believe this, but this is a spoon!"), 4-year-olds were more likely to endorse the label.

In this study, we extend inquiry about children's treatment of incompatible testimony to the social domain, as previous research has focused largely on the aforementioned domain of object labeling. We asked whether 3- to 6-year-olds would change their own trait attributions about a character after hearing competing testimony by an informant who is an authority figure-namely, a teacher. This assessment can provide insight into whether teachers are seen as knowledgeable about people in particular, as previous research has established that they are considered good sources of knowledge about artifacts (Koenig, 2012). This inquiry can also provide general information about whether testimony acceptance varies by domain. On one hand, traits are construed as social categories (Gelman & Heyman, 1999) and should be subject to the same treatment as nonsocial categories as described earlier. …

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