Study: Children Trust Information From Nice Adults
October 29, 2013

Study: Children Trust Information From Nice Adults

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas wrote in the journal Developmental Science that children are more likely to trust an adult’s advice if they are nice.

Scientists looked into how preschoolers decide whom to believe when they are being provided two conflicting pieces of information by a nice or mean adult.

“We need to find the conditions under which children and adults are susceptible to accepting inaccurate information as true,” Dr. Asheley Landrum, a recent UT Dallas graduate and lead researcher on the study, said in a press release. “This means we need to determine when children use characteristics besides how competent someone is, like how attractive or nice someone is, to decide how much to trust that person. We can then develop tools to train children and adults to pay attention to characteristics that are more indicative of a trustworthy source.”

The team asked 164 children, ages three to five, to watch videos of people described as eagle or bicycle “experts.” The first experiments questioned if children understood that some people have more knowledge about topics than others.

Experts in the first experiment would say the same lines, but would provide conflicting follow-up information. Children were asked which expert was more likely to have named the item correctly, and they admitted the experts on eagles knew more about birds, while those experts on bicycles knew more about vehicles.

During the second and third experiments, the team looked at how niceness and meanness could affect the child’s outlook on the advice. The children were presented with similar videos to the first experiment, but one expert would help portray meanness by crossing arms and frowning, while the other appeared nice by smiling and using a friendly tone.

Only one person was identified as an expert, while the other was described as a non-expert on the topic. During the experiments children preferred to learn information from the nice person, regardless of whether they were an expert on the topic or not.

“Even when an expert clearly should know an answer to a question, children tend to trust claims made by nice people with no expertise over mean people with clearly relevant expertise,” said Dr. Candice Mills, Landrum’s advisor and co-author on the paper.

The team says children may believe that someone who appears pleasant is both trustworthy and competent, even if the friendly appearance is a carefully crafted act of manipulation.

“A child might encounter an experienced, yet ill-tempered doctor providing useful advice on how to treat flu symptoms, or a well-intentioned older peer providing unsafe advice on how to handle bullies,” said Mills. “In these cases, children need to be able to put aside how nice or mean someone seems to be in order to learn to trust the right people.”

Another study published earlier this week found how being nice might not be the only way to sway a child’s opinion. Scientists writing in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology said kids tended to place their faith in adults who were good-looking versus those who were unattractive.