Four-year-olds distinguish knowledgeable from accurate informants

Monday, 22 August 2011


As they grow, children learn a lot about the world from what other people tell them. Along the way, they have to figure out who is a reliable source of information.

As they grow, children learn a lot about the world from what other people tell them. Along the way, they have to figure out who is a reliable source of information.

A new study by Shiri Einav of Oxford Brookes University and Elizabeth Robinson of Warwick University, to be published in Psychological Science, finds that when children reach around four years old, they start noticing whether someone is independently knowledgeable or if they’re just getting the answers from someone else.

Earlier studies have found that children as young as three pay attention to whether someone is an accurate information source. If someone gives correct information, they’ll go back to that person for more answers.

But Einav thought there was more to the story: “If you give a correct response it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re knowledgeable about a particular topic ,” she says. “You could be accurate because you asked someone else for help or you could be accurate by a complete fluke.”

So she set out to discover whether children assessing the reliability of others take into account the reasons for their accuracy.

For the study, Einav and Robinson used puppets and a teddy bear to test children. A child would hold up a picture of an elephant, cow, or rabbit for each puppet to identify. Both puppets labelled all animals correctly but one puppet always knew the answer without any help, whereas the other puppet always relied on getting the answers from Ted.

Then, Ted was removed so he couldn’t help the puppets anymore and the child was given a picture of an unfamiliar animal—a mongoose—and asked which puppet could tell them what it was.

Three-year-olds were equally likely to choose the puppet who’d known the answers on its own and the puppet that got help from Ted. But four- and five-year-olds were more discriminating: They invested more trust in the puppet whose accuracy reflected independent knowledge rather than depending on an external source.

“From the age of around four, children’s evaluation skills are quite sophisticated.” Einav says. “They’re able to distinguish someone who’s truly knowledgeable from someone who’s given them a right answer but doesn’t necessarily deserve long-term trust.”

This useful skill allows children to seek out people who are likely to be particularly beneficial for their learning.