They presented sixty children from three age groups (average age 6 years, 8 years or 10 years) with a series of stories about a character who would win a prize if certain conditions were met. For example, in one story, a boy called Michael competes in a running race for a prize. Mills and Keil found that given an ambiguous outcome to the race, children aged 8 and 10 were, like adults, more likely to believe a character’s claims if they appeared to go against that character’s self-interest (e.g. Michael claiming he lost the race) than if the claims were in the character’s interests. In contrast, the 6-year-olds were more likely to believe a character’s claims if they were in that character’s interest (they naively assume that someone who wants to win a race, will).
In a second experiment, children were told at the end of a story whether a character’s claim was accurate or not. If inaccurate, the children were asked to choose whether it was a lie, a mistake or caused by the character’s unintentional bias.
Like adults, even six-year-olds were more likely to interpret false claims consistent with a character’s self-interest as a “lie”, and were more likely to interpret a false claim that went against a character’s self-interest as a “mistake”. That is, they showed signs of cynicism. But only older children seemed to appreciate, as adults do, that people can be unintentionally biased by their desires – only the 12-year-olds frequently chose that interpretation for a character’s false claims.
“Children may be more gullible than adults”, the researchers concluded, “…but the seeds of doubt are also present from an early age and develop dramatically in the elementary-school years”.
Mills, C.M. & Keil, F.C. (2005). The development of cynicism. Psychological Science, 16, 385-390.
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