Timothy J. Bartik
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W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research

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How do young children develop trust and distrust?
Author: Maggie Severns
Published: November 17, 2011

Child development researchers are increasingly curious not only about how young children make early academic gains, but about how they grow as social and emotional beings. Qualities such as patience and the ability to bounce back after disappointment are crucial if a child is to perform well in school. But what about trust?

Children naturally seek out information, but young children lack the ability to decide who and what are trustworthy sources. Learning when to trust and distrust other people is an essential early skill, as that information enables children to begin the lifelong process of filtering and applying things they learn to their understanding of the world.

Research from the September/October issue of Child Development shines an interesting light on how children develop this skill set, and confirms earlier studies demonstrating that children develop a sense of distrust far earlier than most people would assume. Based on the study, which was conducted by Kimberly E. Vanderbilt, David Liu, and Gail D. Heyman of the psychology department at the University of California, San Diego, it seems that learning to differentiate between a trustworthy and an untrustworthy source is a separate process from learning to disregard clearly untrustworthy information. Children begin learning about distrust around age three, the study suggests, but cannot apply that sense of distrust until around age five.

The experiment worked like this: A group of 90 preschool children, ages 3 to 5, were taken into a room with two boxes and told they were going to play a game where their goal was to pick out the one box that had a prize inside: stickers. The children were then shown videos in which an adult, called either a “helper” or a “tricker,” assisted other adults in the video who were playing the game, by pointing either to the correct or incorrect box and telling them to choose it. In some trials, a helper told the truth about which box contained stickers, but in other trials, a tricker lied repeatedly and said the stickers were somewhere they weren’t. The video always concluded with the helper or tricker instructing the child watching the video on which box in the room to choose.

The experiment yielded several interesting findings. First, the 3-year-olds trusted most everyone—94 percent of the helpers and 91 percent of the trickers—regardless of whether the children had seen that person lie on the video. Four and 5-year-olds were less trusting in general and only trusted the helper source 68 and 60 percent of the time, respectively. They were also able to differentiate between which adults told the truth and which were liars, which 3-year-olds couldn’t do.

Only the 5-year-olds, however, could generalize the information they learned in the video and apply it to their own game. Four-year olds could identify a tricker as someone who lies, but often still took that person’s advice; their brains couldn’t yet make they leap where they understood that a person they had observed lying was a person whose advice they should not trust. The 5-year olds, on the other hand, had developed both a sense of distrust and the ability to transfer that knowledge to the real world.  This is a two-step cognitive process that hasn't yet developed in the 4-year-old brain.

Developing trust and distrust is an early way for a child to sort good information from false information, a skill that will be crucial if they are to succeed not just in personal relationships, but academically, as well.  Knowing that children are wired to develop a skill like distrust as early as age 4 speaks to how important adults are as teachers and sources of information to young children.

Early Ed Watch is a multi-author blog that appears on the New America Foundation website. To view other blog content, click here. This blog entry is used by permission.

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