May 27, 2005 -- Children may not be as gullible as we think. A new study shows that the seeds of cynicism emerge in children as early as elementary school.
Researchers found that by the time children are in second grade they are already skeptical of the things people tell them that are in their own self-interest.
"As adults, we recognize that a person's self-interests, such as their desire to win recognition or fit in with their peers, can influence what they say and believe about the world," says researcher Candice Mills, a psychology graduate student at Yale University, in a news release.
"Our research shows that children may be more gullible than adults, but the seeds of doubt are also present from an early age and develop dramatically in the elementary school years," says Mills.
Children Get Cynical Soon
In the study, which appears in the current issue of Psychological Science, researchers looked at what age children begin to adopt a cynical view of what people tell them.
Researchers included 20 children each in kindergarten, second grade, and fourth grade, and told them very short stories in which the characters made statements that were in or against their self-interest.
They found children in kindergarten were likely to believe statements made in the character's self-interest. But by second grade children were already more skeptical and recognized that statements made in someone's self-interest may not be accurate.
"They doubt individuals making statements in accord with self-interest, whereas they increase their belief of individuals making statements against self-interests.
In the second part of the study, researchers asked the children which of three factors might lead someone to make a false statement: intentional deception (lying), unintentional bias, or pure mistake.
Younger children were more likely to think lying was the best explanation for self-interest statements, whereas they explained incorrect statements against self-interest in terms of being a mistake.
Kindergarteners through fourth graders rarely endorsed bias as a possible explanation.
Sixth graders, however, recognized both bias and lies as possible factors behind false statements made in a person's self-interest.
The authors write that in a sense young children seem even more cynical than adults in this task, assuming that people must be intentionally misleading others even when they are not.
"By distinguishing cases of outright intentional lies from cases where we unintentionally distort the truth in self-serving ways, it was possible to show that most elementary school age children are in fact harsher judges of others than adults and older children," says researcher Frank Keil, professor of psychology at Yale University, in the news release.
"It seems that, early on, it is much easier to see falsehoods as caused by deliberate malice than as caused unwittingly by desires."