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Can children save us from the fake news epidemic?

Child development research may hold the answer to our brutally partisan deadlock.
Image: Donald Trump, Claire Thomas
Out of the mouths of babes.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP file

All of us value critical thinking — a capacity for independent thought that involves recognizing error, evaluating evidence and questioning conclusions. Scientists demonstrate critical thinking in their research. Educators seek to cultivate it in their students. Journalists share it with their readers. Philosophers teach it to students every day. But new research on the way children learn from others suggests that these capacities have early roots in childhood and, in the right conditions, can protect them from misinformation.

The age of fake news has put a new spotlight on the importance of critical thinking, however. Is the answer to our brutally partisan deadlock the promotion of such skills in the younger members of our society?

Born to doubt

In the last 15 years or so, research in the field of child development shows that the capacity to doubt other people’s communication emerges early — and is apparent even in infancy. At the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, we’ve presented hundreds of infants and children with terrible sources of information — speakers whose claims are not only false but blatantly false — and we’ve measured kids’ responses.

Even by 16 months of age, we have found that infants are surprised by false information, staring at such speakers longer than those who speak truthfully. Infants occasionally interrupt and overtly correct these false claims. And by 24 months, children are more likely to discount or fail to remember the new things that “bad” or inaccurate speakers say.

In fact, even in households that value a child’s deference to authority, children are able to reject mistaken information. Social psychologist Michal Reifen Tagar and colleagues have demonstrated that exposure to someone who made a few mistakes evoked greater vigilance from children whose families endorsed more authoritarian parenting values, such as respect for elders, obedience and good manners. The big takeaway from this research is that a capacity for doubt emerges without training, very early in development and even in families that cultivate deference.

Indeed, children’s judgments can be remarkably subtle. Two-year-olds tend to imitate people who show confidence over those who hesitate, and slightly older children mistrust teachers who omit relevant information from their demonstrations. At the same time, they trust people who carefully distinguish the things they know from the things they don’t know.

Conventional wisdom holds that children as credulous or gullible. But developmental scientists are changing people’s minds about this. Children are ready to be vigilant against risks presented by false information.

Biased to follow

Interestingly, it might be that children’s critical thinking is best encouraged by talking with others. Like adults, children learn enormous amounts from other people. And like adults, children are biased to favor certain sources.

They favor members of certain groups, and prefer to learn from those who are familiar, dominant, attractive, and from those who speak in ways that are similar to them.

Children are also born ready to learn their culture’s implicit and explicit attitudes towards other people; they do this by watching their actions and listening to the ways in which they talk about others. Common sense and research converge to show that the way we talk about groups (“girls,” “republicans,” “Muslims,” “black people”) invites children to think that these groupings capture fundamental differences between people.

So like adults, children are more likely to believe the people they know, and those who talk like them and look like them. In fact, when children were presented with a member of their group who refused to share with another person, children disliked the person, and even shared less with her as a result. However, children still chose to accept the group member’s claims when she offered them new information.

This is not unlike what adults do when information comes from their favored group or political party. When news comes from the right, conservative-leaning people are likely to believe it – even if comes from someone they don’t like personally. When news comes from liberal sources, progressives fall into the same trap.

Promoting good judgment

How might these lessons come together? If the research above is any guide, children would benefit from seeing their culturally favored sources — parents, teachers, family, clergy, political leaders — admit to the limits of their knowledge, openly discuss their mistakes, profess their doubts and make their uncertainty clear.

This advice might run against a parent’s first instinct, which is to protect kids, and to tell them only what we know, whenever we know it. But in fact, children may be much better served by conversations that combine a gift of nature — children’s capacity for doubt, with a human frailty — our bias toward our own groups. By openly discussing our doubts and mistakes with children on a daily basis, we honor their deep concern for the truth as well as their favor towards us, while practicing the skills that will help them seek out the truth independently.

Melissa Koenig is Professor of Child Psychology at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. Her research lies at the intersection of cognitive development and social understanding, and centers on how testimony functions as a source of knowledge.

Valerie Tiberius is the Paul W. Frenzel Chair in Liberal Arts and the chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Minnesota. Her work explores the ways in which philosophy and psychology can both contribute to the study of well-being and virtue.