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Kids are cynics, too? Yeah, right!

As a generally cynical society, we tend to assume that the only innocent minds worth cherishing are those of children. However, that idyllic thought could be dashed to pieces because as early as first or second grade, children can show definite signs they are gaining the lifelong skill of taking some information they hear with a grain of salt.

Yale University researchers Candice Mills and Frank Keil explored the development of cynicism in children. They found that children as young as 7 exhibit reluctance to accept the spoken word as truth. These findings are reported in the May 2005 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society, in an article entitled “The Development of Cynicism.”

A group of children ranging in age from 5 to 11 years heard stories in which people in different contexts made statements that were either congruent with or counter to their own self-interests about the outcome of an event. After hearing the people’s statements, the children were asked to rate to what extent they believed each statement and how they judged those that were revealed as false.

By age 7, children were able to recognize and discount statements that were clearly aligned with the self-interest of the speaker.In some situations, 7-year-olds exhibited more cynicism than the older children. The 7- to11-year-olds couldn’t grasp the idea that someone’s bias could be accidental; consequently they believed that all false statements made in self-interest were lies and that all those made against self-interest were mistakes. Before age 7, children were shown to be relatively gullible, believing most self-interest-motivated statements to be true. By age 11, children were shown to be able to perceive situational bias as well as deliberate deception as possible explanations for what people said. In short, at least by age 7, children can be cynical, recognizing that people’s statements may be influenced by their own interests. Yet the 7-year-olds’ blindness to unintentional bias as an explanation suggests that a full understanding of how self-interests influence what people say and do develops over childhood.

“An understanding of unconsciousness develops over the elementary-school years and it may be difficult for children to grasp this concept and its causal influences. Future research should explore the emergence of an understanding of bias in children,” conclude the authors. This research has implications for how children interpret and understand information and could alter views on how children are targeted as an audience in the media and in advertising.

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