Epistemic or interpersonal? Children’s selective trust decisions in others
Much of children’s learning about the world, particularly early in life, depends on what others say to them. Despite the clear benefits of learning from others, people sometimes may offer inaccurate information either due to the lack of competence or the motivation to deceive. Fortunately, an amassing body of research shows that children are not completely credulous in their learning decisions. Instead, children are selective in whom they prefer to learn from (e.g., preferring accurate over inaccurate or nice over mean informants). Although there is ample evidence that children engage in selective learning strategies that enable them to distinguish reliable sources from unreliable ones, the cognitive basis for this selectivity is still a puzzle. The mechanisms behind selective trust are primarily couched in terms of accepting testimony as inductive evidence and children’s trust as a rational inference from the evidence. However, there are relevant interpersonal considerations that affect whom children prefer to learn from as well as whom they choose to play with. For example, children may sometimes attribute more knowledge to one informant but still choose to share, play, or affiliate with the other. The current study, therefore, was designed to investigate whether particular conditions (e.g., an informant who is smart but mean) affect children’s trust preferences differently depending on the task. In the familiarization trials, 5- to 7-year-olds (N = 134) were shown a pair of competent informants but in different domains (i.e., nice but inaccurate vs. mean but inaccurate informant). In the test trials, children were asked to choose between the informants for two tasks that either demanded epistemic or interpersonal considerations. The results suggest that 7-year-olds’ decisions to learn from and practical decisions to share with an informant changed as a function of an informant’s characteristics relevant to the given tasks. However, 5-year-olds’ epistemic trust was weakened by interpersonal faults (i.e., whether the agent was nice or mean). This indicates that interpersonal violations of trust may constitute a more serious type of agent failure that is prone to be generalized by children across different domains.