Friday, March 10, 2006

Cynical from a Young Age

The research mentioned in yesterday's post shows that children may display altruistic behavior at a much earlier age than previously thought. To continue with that theme, I thought I'd post on some research by Candice Mills and Frank Keil1 showing that children may display cynicism at a much earlier age than previously thought, as well. In both lines of research, interesting aspects of children's theory-of-mind are demonstrated. And in both cases, we may have to change the way we think about children's social cognition. Children, it turns out, may be a bit more sophisticated than we usually give them credit.

Historically, young children have been thought to be extremely naive and gullible, in part because people thought they had to be. Here's how Richard Dawkins put the traditional position2:
When you are pre-programmed to absorb useful information at a high rate, it is hard to shut out pernicious or damaging information at the same time. With so many mindbytes to be downloaded, so many mental codons to be replicated, it is no wonder that child brains are gullible, open to almost any suggestion, vulnerable to subversion, easy prey to Moonies, Scientologists and nuns. Like immune-deficient patients, children are wide open to mental infections that adults might brush off without effort. (pp. 13-14)
But we already know that children are much better at distinguishing fantasy from reality than most had previously thought. And in two experiments, Mill and Keil have shown that they're also pretty cynical when deciding whether people might be telling the truth, when they might not, and why they might or might not be telling the truth.

In the first experiment, participants in three age groups (kindergarten, second grade, and fourth grade) were trained on a 5-point rating scale (described below), and then read twelve short stories (about four sentences long). There were four different kinds of stories, and each child heard three of each. The first two types of stories involved a situation (e.g., a race) in which, if the main characterachievedd a certain outcome, he or she would win a prize. Thus, in these stories the main character had a specific personal interest, namely winning the prize. In one version of each of these stories (with self-interest version), the main character stated that he or she hadachievedd the outcome required to win a prize. In this case, then, the character's claims were consistent with his or her self-interest. In the other version of these stories (against self-interest version), the character stated that he or she had notachievedd the required outcome. Thus in this version the characters' statements were against his or her personal interests. The other two conditions were included as controls. In these stories, the outcome was known. In the true version of the story, the character correctly stated that he or she had won the prize. In the false version, the character incorrectly states that he or she had not won the prize. After each story, the children were asked to rate how much they believed the character on a 1 to 5 scale, with one indicating that they don't believe the character at all, and 5 indicating that they believe him or her completely.

As we would expect, for all ages, children's ratings of their belief of the character in the true version were much higher than their ratings of their belief of the character in the false version. This indicates both that they understand how to use the ratings, and that they are not simply more likely to disbelieve someone who says he or she won, or to believe someone who says he or she lost. The interesting results, however, occurred for the with self-interest and against self-interest versions. Kindergarten children were significantly more likely to believe that the characters were telling the truth in the with self-interest condition. Second and fourth graders, however, were significantly more likely to believe that the characters were telling the truth in the against self-interest condition. This is the way adults tend to answer in similar experiments, also3. Thus, the data from this first experiment indicates that between kindergarten age and second grade, children began to develop adult-like cynicism.

In the second experiment, children from the same three age groups, along with a group of six graders, were read stories similar to those from the first experiment. In each of these stories (six in all), the characters made incorrect statements. In half of the stories, the incorrect statements were consistent with the personal interests of the character, and in the other half, they were against those interests. The children were then asked to indicate what they thought was the best explanation for the incorrect statement: the character was lying, the character was biased, or the character made a mistake. The results were as follows: for kindergarten, second grade, and fourth grade children, incorrectstatementss that were consistent with the character's self-interest were most often explained as lies, while incorrect statements that were inconsistent withtheh character's self-interest were most often explained as mistakes. Sixth graders gave similar explanations, except that they listed bias as an explanation for incorrect statements consistent with the character's self-interest about as often as they listed lying. Mill and Keil explain this small difference between the younger children and the six graders by noting that in the literature, young children have been shown to underestimate or ignore the role of interpretation in people's thinking4.

Thus, children as young as 7 (second graders) believe that people's self-interest affects their honesty, and children as young as 5 kindergartenerss) believe that when people make incorrect statements that are consistent with their self-interests, they probably did so intentionally (or because they are biased, for sixth graders). Young children appear to be cynics pretty early on, then. By the second grade, they're approaching full-fledged adult cynicism, and are not the gullible information-sponges that many believe them to be.

1Mills, C., & Keil, F.C. (2005) The Development of Cynicism. Psychological Science, 16, 385-390.
2Dawkins, R. (1993). Viruses of the mind. In B. Dahlbom (Ed.), Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind. Oxford, England:
Blackwell, pp. 13–27, as quoted in Mills & Keil (2005).
3Murukutla, N., &Armor, D.A. (2003). Illusions of objectivity in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Unpublished
manuscript, Yale University, New Haven, CT.
4Carpendale, J.I., & Chandler, M.J. (1996). On the distinction between false belief understanding and subscribing to an interpretive theory of mind. Child Development, 67, 1686–1706.

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