Field of Science

Young kids can't help believing what they're told

My son turned 6 this weekend, and one of the games we played at his party was the classic Simon Says. I love that game! It never ceases to amaze me how easily the kids are fooled. Even at 5 going on 6, they seem to instinctively obey verbal instructions.

It reminded me of a study just published in Psychological Science by Vikram Jaswal, at the University of Virginia, and colleagues. They've been looking at the power of adult verbal testimony to lead children to disbelieve their own eyes.

For example, in one study the experimenter hid a sticker under one of two cups. If the kid guessed right, she won the sticker.  If the kid guessed wrong, the experimenter got it. The experimenter told the kid how much she wanted the sticker.

Then the experimenter told the kid which cup the sticker was under. Of course, she lied.

The kid, unsurprisingly, believes the experimenter - after all, the kid is just 3 years old. And then the kid is proved wrong.

The strange thing is that the kid doesn't learn from her mistakes. She goes on believing the experimenter. And losing every time.

It seems that there's something specially convincing about verbal testimony. When they re-ran the experiment, but with the experimenter using an arrow to point to the cup, instead of saying anything, the kids cottoned on much quicker. Well, mostly.

And when they re-ran it using either a video of the experimenter or audio, they found that the kids were more likely to keep believing the lie if they could see as well as hear the experimenter.

The researchers reckon this reveals a deep-seated, evolved trait the drives young kids to believe what they're told.

“Children have developed a specific bias to believe what they’re told,” says Jaswal. “It’s sort of a short cut to keep them from having to evaluate what people say. It’s useful because most of the time parents and caregivers tell children things that they believe to be true.”

Other research they've done (not yet published) shows that kids will repeatedly believe an adult's account of an event, rather than trusting their own eyes. And other evidence seems to show that adults also are susceptible to this - although less so than 3-year olds, of course.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with this blog's regular fare of religion or non-religion. The answer is: not a lot! But it is interesting...

ResearchBlogging.orgJaswal VK, Croft AC, Setia AR, & Cole CA (2010). Young children have a specific, highly robust bias to trust testimony. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (10), 1541-7 PMID: 20855905

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I demur. This has a lot to do with religion. The way in which younger people acquire their intellectual furniture and commitments over time has to do with this "believe what the older people tell you" heuristic we are born with. It is computationally tractable at a period when there is otherwise too much to process. You believe what your family and community tells you because they aren't dead, and so believing them ups the chances you won't be either.

    As a side effect, there will be hitchhikers: ideas and beliefs that are not ecologically relevant but which you believe because they parasitise that heuristic. This sets up a way in which cultural beliefs can evolve and be transmitted.

  2. It's the only reason religion still exists.

  3. I am curious about the outliers. A certain amount of kids, the freaks, doubt from the get-go. Population-Evolution is not in vogue, but it makes you suspect that an organism's genetic pool would benefit from a very few natural doubters (though they would die off quicker) for needed change when the elders views don't work any longer.

    Were you a natural doubter, Tom?

  4. I agree with John. I certainly wouldn't say that this is the only reason religion persists (it has to have a deeply ingrained complementary cognitive equipment). And young children being credulous doesn't explain the origin of religion either - lots of outlandish tales are told and then quickly forgotten.

    However, those caveats aside it is obvious to me that the number of religious believers would significantly drop if they heard about it later in life rather than as young children.

  5. The Catholic school system in Canada does exactly what this article states. My son has at least 1/2 hour of religious instruction each day, much to my chagrin.

  6. John: Yes, you're quite right - it's about cultural transmission. Of course, that applies equally to atheist beliefs - hence my caution.

    So yes, in the face of a very complex world, sometimes the best strategy is simply to follow a leader who seems to know what they're doing. It can be put in the same bucket as copying rituals.

    And that helps explain how false beliefs persist. But they needn't be religious false beliefs.

  7. Sabio: I guess the optimal strategy (doubt/belief) varies according to the situation. Hence either could be successful at different times and places - no doubt why both phenotypes persist.

    I don't know if I was a natural doubter. My parents are atheists, and I just followed their lead :) I did test god once, and god passed the test. But I still refused to believe in him. That could be interpreted several ways...

    My children are very different. My daughter (nearly 8) believes in God and Santa. My son (just 6) does not, despite our best efforts (on the Santa front)!

  8. Would be interesting to run this experiment with religious and non-religious adults and stratify by intelligence; also, tell the subject that the experimenter is religious or not religious and see if that has an effect. I say this because it seems that many religious people are especially vulnerable to arguments from authority, even one s that have nothing to do with religion. Many a Christian buys herbal supplements because Oprah (or a similar figure) says they're good. This experiment could show whether there is in fact such a tendency. By the way, great blog!


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