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A Matter of Trust

You may be surprised but your three-year-old toddler can sort the grain from chaff when it comes to learning.

Ben and Jenny, the hand puppets
Three and four-year-olds develop the ability to distinguish between a good and a bad teacher very early. Canadian psychologist Susan Birch and others have found that a child of three tracks an individual’s history of being accurate or inaccurate, and then applies this to subsequent learning.

The researchers from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver used two lovable hand puppets that many children are familiar with — a child-like girl Jenny and the boy-like Ben. The study appears in the May issue of the journal Cognition.

In the first phase of their experiment, Jenny gave correct labels for objects that children are familiar with, like “horse” or “ball”, while Ben provided wrong labels or functions, calling a spoon a “cup” or a car a “shoe”.

In the second phase, the puppets introduced words and actions that were unfamiliar to the children. The children tended to believe Jenny, who had earlier provided correct answers.

“It shows that even at such a young age children are sensitive to others’ mistakes and, quite impressively, not only use a person’s prior accuracy to decide who to learn from but do so spontaneously,” say the researchers.

“Most of our interactions with other people are based on trust — we have to trust that the food we buy from them is not going to make us sick, that the bank is really going to give us our money back when we ask for it and so on,” says Vikram Jaswal, director of Child Language & Learning Laboratory, University of Virginia in the US.

In a similar work, published in 2006, Jaswal and others had shown pre-school children a videotape with an adult actor and a child actor describing novel things. The two actors provided different names for an object unfamiliar to the participants. One called it a “blicket” and the other a “wug”. When asked what they thought it was called, the children tended to use the name that the adult had given.

What is really interesting, though, is that if before the experiment began the adult actor made several mistakes (like calling an airplane a “shoe”), the children favoured the new word that the child actor had given!

This shows that even though children seem to recognise that adults are normally good sources of information, a particular adult’s credibility could be undermined if he or she had made a few mistakes earlier, Jaswal remarks.

Sources: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)