Preschool Children Rarely Seek Empirical Data That Could Help Them Complete a Task When Observation and Testimony Conflict

Tone K. Hermansen, Samuel Ronfard, Paul L. Harris, Imac M. Zambrana:

Children (N = 278, 34–71 months, 54% girls) were told which of two figurines turned on a music box and also observed empirical evidence either confirming or conflicting with that testimony. Children were then asked to sort novel figurines according to whether they could make the music box work or not. To see whether children would explore which figurine turned on the music box, especially when the observed and testimonial evidence conflicted, children were given access to the music box during their sorting. However, children rarely explored. Indeed, they struggled to disregard the misleading testimony both when sorting the figurines and when asked about a future attempt. In contrast, children who explored the effectiveness of the figurines dismissed the misleading testimony.

Children learn about the world in a variety of ways. They can learn by paying attention to what other people do (Hoehl et al., 2019). They can learn from testimony directed toward themselves or toward other people (for reviews: Harris, Koenig, Corriveau, & Jaswal, 2018; Mills, 2013; Sobel & Kushnir, 2013; Tong, Wang, & Danovitch, 2020). And, they can gather evidence through exploration (Bonawitz et al., 2011; Schulz & Bonawitz, 2007; Yu, Landrum, Bonawitz, & Shafto, 2018), experimentation (Cook, Goodman, & Schulz, 2011; Köksal-Tuncer & Sodian, 2018), and question-asking (Callanan & Oakes, 1992; Kurkul & Corriveau, 2017). Children’s ability to learn from these diverse sources of information is one reason they are able to learn so much so quickly. Each of these sources of information can provide children with unique insights about the world. For example, by listening to other people, children can avoid costly mistakes and learn about unobservable scientific and religious phenomena they could not discover on their own (Harris & Koenig, 2006). By tracking statistical regularities young children can quickly build up and revise their understanding of causal structures without relying on other people’s testimony (Bridgers, Buchsbaum, Seiver, Griffiths, & Gopnik, 2016).