August 9, 2013 1:12 pm
The next time you want to trick a child into thinking you’re smart, just be nice to them. If kids aren’t good at figuring out which candy-offering stranger is a friend and which is a foe, well, they’re not very good at telling who is an expert in anything, either. And new research showed that when it comes to who to trust, kids will go for the nice person over the expert.
The study involved showing a bunch of kids two people—a pair of male twins. One twin was an eagle expert. The other was a bicycle expert. The kids watched the two experts name obscure objects, some of which were eagle- and bike-related and some of which were not. The kids had to then say which twin was probably right about each name.
You’d think that the kids would assume that the bike expert is right about bike parts, the eagle expert about eagle parts, but the study found that while five-year-olds were better than three-year-olds at picking out the relevant expert and agreeing with him, even they showed only ”a modest ability,” according to Research Digest, to make the right choice.
The second part of the study featured those same twins but added a layer of complexity—niceness. Sometimes, the eagle man would be mean and sometimes the bike man would be mean. Kids then had to do the same task, choose which twin was right about obscure words.
The children showed a clear overall bias for believing the suggestions of the nicer person (70 per cent overall). They only showed a preference for listening to the man with relevant expertise if he was also nice.
Although children most strongly preferred the nice relevant expert, the children often chose the nice irrelevant expert when the relevant one was mean.
So the study showed what the babysitters of the world figured out long ago: you can give a kid incorrect information about a topic you know nothing about, and, as long as you’re nice, there’s a good chance they’ll believe you.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.