Becoming cynics at a tender age

Learning to doubt key to processing information


August 19, 2005|By Mariana Minaya | Mariana Minaya,Sun Staff

It's a sad time for parents when their children stop believing in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny. All too soon they stop accepting everything mom and dad say as the truth, and begin a long slide into the sulky, jaded teenage years.

So how, exactly, do children develop into cynics? It's not entirely clear, researchers say. But a recent study concludes that youngsters begin doubting some of what they hear around age 7, and they develop the ability to recognize bias -- the unintentional skewing of facts -- at about 11.

"They are not as gullible as we might expect them to be," said Candice Mills, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Dallas and co-author of the study in Psychological Science. "When talking to our children, we may want to keep that in mind."

For children, a sense of cynicism is important in sorting truth from lies and identifying the quality of the source of their information, said Frank Keil, a psychology professor at Yale University and co-author of the study.

Recognizing that a person may be biased, and not deliberately lying, is an even more adult skill. "It's very hard to understand the notion of bias at all ages, especially young ages," Keil said.

Although a harder notion to grasp, recognizing bias is just as important as telling truth from falsehood. "In everyday social interaction we need to have some ability to reflect about what someone else is thinking," added Bradford Pillow, a psychologist at Northern Illinois University who has done similar research and is familiar with the study.

In the latest effort at Yale, Keil and colleagues tested 140 children between 5 and 12 by reading them short stories with ambiguous outcomes in which the main character makes a statement that's either aligned with his self-interest or against it.

For example, in one story the outcome of a race was too close to call, and the protagonist either claimed that he'd won it or said that he'd lost. Younger children tended to believe a character who said he'd won, but by 7 or 8, they began to doubt him.

"The real cynicism doesn't emerge until the second grade," Keil said.

It wasn't until age 11 that children started to realize a person's bias could influence his claim. To test for that, the researchers told the same type of story -- in which the character claims he won a close contest. But this time, the adults told the children that the character was wrong.

At younger ages, children generally thought the character who claimed he had won was telling a lie. But at 11, the children began to recognize that the character's reaction may have been skewed by his desire to win -- and that he wasn't necessarily lying.

Not much is known about why and how children develop these skills, and the process is the subject of considerable debate.

In an evolutionary sense, it's important for kids to lose their gullibility, says Joachim Krueger, a Brown University psychologist. If they don't, they'll be taken advantage of and eventually be selected out.

"We have such big brains because the main task hasn't been to organize, but to outthink the other guy," Krueger said. "It's been kind of an arms race of deception that starts with being able to detect ingeniousness in others."

Earlier theorists have argued that children start out gullible out of the same evolutionary necessity -- they must accept whatever they are told as the truth so they can learn as much as possible in a short amount of time.

"If you're too skeptical, that could interfere with learning, if you never believe anything," Pillow said.

The younger children in the study did in fact display more naivete about the contest winners in the stories they heard. Until age 7, the youngsters generally believed the character who said he won the ambiguous race. "One possibility is if they really want something to be true, it is true," said Keil.

As children become older, social experience may contribute significantly to the development of cynicism, said Mills. School becomes more competitive as they begin receiving grades for performance, she said, and it may make them likelier to identify self-interest and deception.

Biology may also play a part. Kurt Fischer, a professor of education and human development at Harvard University, said major brain reorganizations occur at the same ages that researchers found changes in children's propensity to question what they hear.

Before 6 or 7, children cannot really process two contradictory events, such as a person being nice and mean to them at the same time, Fischer said.

So it's likely that biology and social experience share responsibility for children's newfound sense of cynicism. "Just having the brain changes doesn't lead to the behavioral changes. You have to be experiencing things in order to build the skills," Fisher declared.

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