How do kids identify untrustworthy strangers?
A new study from the University of Waterloo shows just how clued in young children are to the subtleties of communication, making it clear that once past the preschool years children are able to home in on the trustworthiness of others.
The study examines the cues kids use to identify untrustworthy strangers by looking at how two groups of children, pre-schoolers aged four and five and school-aged children aged seven and eight, responded to overtly “inconsistent” communication. Inconsistent communication contains verbal cues that do not match with visual cues, for example, if a person were to say, “My dog died today,” while smiling.
Researchers created scenarios where children were asked to solicit clues from four types of speakers on video in order to figure out the plot of a story. Some speakers communicated consistently, either by making positive statements (“I found my favourite book today”) and wearing positive expressions or by making negative statements (“I lost my favourite book today”) and wearing negative expressions, while still others spoke with inconsistency between visual and verbal cues.
It turns out that if asked from whom they’d like to gather information for the story, school-aged children reliably chose consistent communicators over inconsistent ones, yet pre-schoolers did not – instead, they focused more on positive versus negative statements, preferring to trust those with positive statements.
Over development children become increasingly sensitive to nuanced cues that are relevant to source credibility, as well as the contexts in which such cues are relevant (or not).
The results show that estimations of trustworthiness begin to play a role in decision-making sometime after pre-school age.
“Over development children become increasingly sensitive to nuanced cues that are relevant to source credibility, as well as the contexts in which such cues are relevant (or not),” say the study’s authors. “These findings contribute to a large body of literature revealing the broad range of cues that children use to decide whether someone is a credible source of information.”
As anyone who has cooed to a baby before knows, at a very early stage infants are able to pick up vocal cues. This focus on the voice and especially on words remains primary for preschoolers: they clue in more to what is said than how it is said. But over the years and into adulthood, non-verbal cues take centre stage in the task of gathering up information to draw conclusions.
“Being skeptical of individuals who display inconsistent cues may be adaptive for children’s knowledge acquisition (i.e. to avoid deception or potential miscommunication),” say the study’s authors.
And while avoiding miscommunication may be a later-forming trait, the process of language acquisition happens very early, according to the research. Developmental behaviorists have determined that even in the womb we are learning how to understand the language(s) of those around us and that this most fertile time for language acquisition lasts until the end of our first year while the brain’s synapses are still forming. But if your child didn’t was not trained in that second or third language while still in the womb, don’t worry, language acquisition skills remain strong until around puberty. After that things get a little more difficult.
The University of Waterloo study is currently available online from the journal Cognition and Emotion.