Trusting What You're Told

Trusting What You're Told: How Children Learn from Others

PAUL L. HARRIS
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 266
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jbq07
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  • Book Info
    Trusting What You're Told
    Book Description:

    If children were little scientists who learn best through firsthand observations and mini-experiments, how would a child discover that the earth is round—never mind conceive of heaven as a place someone might go after death? Trusting What You’re Told begins by reminding us of a basic truth: Most of what we know we learned from others.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06519-2
    Subjects: Psychology, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    We adults could scarcely find our way in the world, either literally or metaphorically, if no one told us anything. Imagine planning a journey to a distant city you’ve never visited before. Even to conceive of that plan—to know of the city’s existence and to want to see it—calls for a wealth of geographic information that only other people can supply. Deprived of the testimony of others about the land in which we live, our spatial horizon shrinks to the places we have already seen and those we can see just ahead of us. Much the same can...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Early Learning from Testimony
    (pp. 8-21)

    When children first start to talk, they talk about what is right in front of them, and so do the adults who talk to them. So there is virtually no discussion of the future, the past, or faraway places. That early restriction makes sense. It is precisely because children can use their grasp of the immediate situation as a kind of mental dictionary with which to decipher other people’s intended meaning that they can acquire language in the first place (MacNamara, 1972). There is a sense, therefore, in which children encounter a recurrent correlation between what they are told and...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Children’s Questions
    (pp. 22-44)

    In recent decades there have been several attempts to teach chimpanzees to communicate via language. One of the most successful programs has involved Kanzi, a male bonobo. With the help of a “talking” keyboard, Kanzi is able to express his needs and feelings and to make requests. His comprehension of human language is roughly equivalent to that of young preschooler, and sometimes superior. When Kanzi and Alia, a 2½-year-old child, were given a comprehensive test of language understanding, they did quite well. For example, asked to give a particular object to a particular recipient (e.g., “Give the doggie some carrots”),...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Learning from a Demonstration
    (pp. 45-62)

    Very young children change their ideas about the world on the basis of what other people tell them, and they actively seek information from other people by asking questions about identity, function, location, and cause. But children can also learn a lot from watching other people. Particularly in preindustrialized societies, young children come to participate in a variety of activities, including food-gathering, gardening, fishing, and weaving, through observation and imitation (Konner, 2010).

    The study of human imitation is fascinating for several, overlapping reasons. First, it is possible to offer children and nonhuman primates, especially chimpanzees, approximately the same demonstration and...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Moroccan Birds and Twisted Tubes
    (pp. 63-77)

    Faced with a choice between copying an adult’s demonstration and doing it their way, children are surprising deferential. Even when they know of an efficient procedure, they faithfully copy an adult’s more ornate and in efficient demonstration. What happens when children face similar conflicts between what an adult tells them and what they can see for themselves? Here too, children might stick to their own judgment or they might be deferential.

    Guided by how confident they are, children steer between these two possibilities. They do query the answers that they receive to their questions, when those answers are obviously discrepant...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Trusting Those You Know?
    (pp. 78-97)

    Children accept information that runs counter to their own ideas. They revise their classification of an object if an adult proposes an alternative, and they set aside robust intuitions about an object’s movement in light of what they are told. These deferential reactions are consistent with a long-standing philosophical conception of young children as credulous. Thomas Reid, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, proposed that we human beings have “a disposition to confide in the veracity of others and to believe what they tell us. . . . It is unlimited in children” (Reid, 1764/2000). In the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell claimed...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Consensus and Dissent
    (pp. 98-112)

    As adults, we often seek help from people we scarcely know. Suppose that you’ve just arrived at the main station of an unfamiliar city. Your hotel is in the neighborhood, but you’re not exactly sure where. Two helpful passers-by offer conflicting advice. One gives directions for walking to the hotel, but the other recommends a taxi. A nearby couple join the debate. They look skeptical when the walking route is described, but nod when the taxi is proposed. You thank them, gather your belongings, and head toward the taxi rank. Without really thinking about it, you are inclined to trust...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Moral Judgment and Testimony
    (pp. 113-131)

    The idea that other people’s testimony might play a critical role in children’s moral judgment has rarely been considered. The classic question in developmental psychology has concerned when and how children arrive at their own moral decisions, independent of other people’s guidance. I will argue for a somewhat paradoxical conclusion. Children can be surprisingly autonomous in their moral judgment. They may even reach moral conclusions that their families do not share. At the same time, in reaching their independent conclusions, children make use of the testimony that other people provide. Indeed, their thoughtfulness underlines the point that complete autonomy in...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Knowing What Is Real
    (pp. 132-151)

    The monster waiting in the closet and the imaginary companion who somehow gets “lost” at the shopping mall—both can make young children distraught, even if each is the work of their imagination. We might assume that children display these emotional reactions because they confuse fantasy with reality. But children are more sophisticated than that.

    When preschoolers are invited to imagine an object or scene, whether it is a prosaic object such as a pair of scissors, or something more emotionally charged, such as a witch chasing after them, they realize that what they are imagining is not real and...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Death and the Afterlife
    (pp. 152-172)

    Children are told that there is an afterlife. Depending on the particular culture, they might learn that the dead meet their Maker or join the Ancestors. Most children and indeed most adults accept this testimony even if, at first glance, it denies the biological facts. They construct two parallel ideas about death: a secular conception in which death is viewed as a biological event bringing living processes to an end, and a spiritual conception in which death is not final, especially for human beings, who live on in an altered form.

    A long tradition of research has focused on children’s...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Magic and Miracles
    (pp. 173-193)

    In this chapter, I ask how children conceive of the past. Do they think that anything could have happened there, or, on the contrary, that it was constrained by causal regularities? One way to approach this question is to look at children’s ideas about stories. Because children cannot experience or revisit the past, they rely on the narratives of other people to learn about it. When do children start to distinguish between stories that are fictional and those that aim to describe what actually happened?

    David Hume claimed that a sense of history as a genuinely factual narrative was slow...

  14. CHAPTER 11 Going Native
    (pp. 194-210)

    Stonehenge and the Pyramids offer silent proof of an ancient human capacity for coordinated action. Other primates have left no such monuments. We find evidence of individual tool use—for example, the debris left behind by successive generations of chimpanzees, skilled at hammering nuts—but no enduring signs of cooperation. In view of this vast difference among species in cultural organization, we might expect a comparably vast difference in cognitive ability. But the characterization of that divide, and of what gave rise to it in the course of evolution, has been challenging.

    In an eloquent essay, Nick Humphrey pointed to...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 213-221)
  16. References
    (pp. 222-241)
  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 242-244)
  18. Index
    (pp. 245-253)