Melissa Koenig

Director of the Early Language and Experience Lab
Associate Professor, Institute of Child Development
University of Minnesota / Human Development in Psychology

Melissa Koenig is the Director of the Early Language and Experience Lab and an associate professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. She specializes in early language development and theory of mind. Her recent research focuses on children’s evaluation of testimony, the bases upon which they credit knowledge to others, and the epistemic significance of doubt. She also explores the importance of credible and accurate advertising to young children, and the ways in which adults can expand children’s critical thinking abilities.

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Trust Through the Eyes of Children: A Psychologist’s Perspective

Contributor / Melissa Koenig
Melissa Koenig Human Development in Psychology Definitions,Trust Formation Children are often said to be highly trusting, or credulous, and for several reasons.

First, it’s a cherished notion, both historically and currently. It’s one of the things that adults find so charming about young children—namely, their trusting nature.

Second, don’t children have to be credulous to some degree? After all, children are in the business of acquiring an enormous amount of information about the world.

And the people around them—their family, friends, teachers, the surrounding culture—are an important source of that information.

So, they can’t afford to be skeptical about it. In this respect, trust simply makes sense.

Developmental scientists are changing people’s minds about how credulous children are by studying the different forms that trust can take, the ways in which children reason about other people—who they are, what they say, and what they do.

Bumper: Exploring Two Varieties of Trust

In thinking about varieties of trust, we can distinguish between epistemic trust and interpersonal trust.

Epistemic trust treats testimony as a species of evidence. And when treated as a species of evidence, people trust others based on the evidence they have about them.

This notion of epistemic trust is borrowed from philosophy. Philosophers have pointed to the grounds we often have for trusting others—information about the speaker or the context or a particular testimonial practice.

And when we think about epistemic trust in this way, trust is really grounded in some form of evidence.

In the field of developmental psychology, psychologists are studying epistemic trust by manipulating the evidence they present to young children.

So, you might present children with three pieces of evidence that someone’s an accurate speaker, or you might give them three pieces of evidence that someone’s pro-social or kind in their actions.

And we can ask how that evidence bears on their future trusting decisions.

There’s another type of trust that we might call “interpersonal trust”; others have called it “social trust.”

And with this form of trust, it’s not about having evidence or beliefs about a person; rather, interpersonal trust is about making a kind of decision to rely or depend on someone and doing so despite having evidence against them or having no evidence at all.

So, young children often believe what others tell them, despite their having evidence against it or having evidence against them as a speaker.

And when children trust others in this way, we think there’s other reasons or other bases of their trust in that source.

So, when children trust someone despite having evidence against them, it could be that they’re deciding to rely on someone because of other reasons or other ways we have of valuing the people around us.

One way to see this is to appreciate that even if someone provides you with false information, you might still have good interpersonal reasons to trust them.

In research by Vikram Jaswal and colleagues and Gail Heyman and others, adults are tasked with hiding a treat under one of two locations, under one of two cups, and children are invited to find the treat.

And in the task, the adult actually presents false information about where the treat is hiding. And despite these falsehoods, children continue to trust that source for information.

So, if you think of this in terms of epistemic trust, it could be that you simply need more evidence to identify a deceptive intention and discount that source.

So, this makes clear the ways in which there are two varieties of trust—the epistemic and the interpersonal.

Both of these are distinct and unique from each other, but they’re both appropriate and rational forms that trust can take.

Bumper: Three Sets of Trust Questions for Developmental Psychology

For developmental psychology, this opens up three new and really interesting sets of questions.

First, we can ask, when in development do children begin to evaluate people as sources of information? In infancy? As soon as they begin to rely on others? When they begin to understand a basic set of behavior? Or when they begin to understand what other people tell them?

Second, if children can monitor something like the accuracy of a statement, then we can ask, well, what other kinds of things are they monitoring in other people’s speech and behavior?

So, we can start to ask, what other characteristics matter to children when they’re making judgments or decisions about whether to trust another person?

And this is where research in developmental psychology draws beautifully on the work of other disciplines.

In social psychology, we know that factors like group membership, authority, and consensus factor in people’s decisions. And we can ask whether or not those same factors influence children’s reasoning about others.

And third, we can ask, in the eyes of an infant or a young child, what information makes someone worth trusting?

We can ask, what makes someone a rational agent? What makes someone a reliable agent? What makes someone a morally good agent?

And to investigate all of these questions, it makes sense to keep in mind this distinction between epistemic trust and the interpersonal.