Start of Main Content


CONTRIBUTOR / Melissa Koenig

UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA / Human Development in Psychology

Children gather evidence quickly. So much so that they can lose trust rapidly when they witness inconsistency. This kind of evidence-based trust, which psychologists call epistemic trust, has been heavily researched in relation to how children perceive trust. And much of that research lends itself to real-world trust issues that surface everyday, such as whether or not a child can believe that he will, indeed, get to watch TV after he does his homework. Beyond being observational, children can be intuitive, accurately gauging trustworthiness from appearance alone.


Historically in the field of developmental psychology, there’s long-standing agreement on the importance of trust and the importance of trusting relationships for children’s development and their well-being.

So, what’s new in the field? In the last 15 years or so, there’s a new interest in understanding the different forms that trust can take in children’s cognitive lives, in their learning decisions and in their practical decisions.

Bumper: How Children Develop “Epistemic Trust”—Is the Person Telling the Truth?

In development, we think epistemic judgments to trust are early emerging, that they're made spontaneously, and that children might not even need extensive evidence about you to make these judgments.

To see this, one of the first experiments that looked at children’s epistemic trust presented three- and four-year-old children with two speakers—one who consistently named a set of familiar objects accurately (say, a cup, a ball, and a shoe), and the other speaker consistently labeled those same objects inaccurately.

And after three pieces of evidence about these two speakers’ accuracy, children later preferred to learn new information from the previously accurate speaker.

Since that work on early accuracy monitoring, researchers like Kathleen Corriveau and Paul Harris have gone on to show that, A, children remember that accuracy information about individuals over time, and secondly, that they don’t only monitor an individual’s track record of accuracy, but they monitor agreement or rates of disagreement across several individuals.

So, when you think about children’s growing beliefs about religion or God, or their growing scientific beliefs about the body or the shape of the earth, we know that children need to reconcile the different claims that people are presenting about these things.

So, when people’s statements are treated as evidence, you can think of children needing to put together the different pieces of evidence they receive from other people.

To the extent that a child is surrounded by people who agree or disagree about God or dinosaurs or climate change, children can monitor people’s agreement or rates of disagreement, much like a young sociologist who samples public opinion.

So, this work on epistemic trust suggests that children are making these judgments quite flexibly.

Bumper: What Marshmallows Tell Us about Interpersonal Trust

When we’re interested in children’s interpersonal trust, it makes sense to study some of the practical decisions they make about us.

We know that children frequently face the need to wait for things that they might like right away—they have to, for example, wait for dessert until after dinner, or they have to wait to watch television until their homework is finished.

And researchers have found that children’s ability to wait for a larger reward later relates to how trustworthy or reliable the people around them prove to be.

In research by Celeste Kidd and colleagues, or Laura Michaelson and Yuko Munakata, and Annelise Pesch in my own lab have all presented children with people who make promises or commitments concerning a new and exciting art project.

Some of the people in these experiments came through on their commitments and delivered exciting art supplies, and others did not.

Later on, after the art project was put away and children were told that if they resisted a single marshmallow now in exchange for two or three marshmallows later, children were much more willing to wait for a larger reward when those claims came from people who kept their promises regarding the art supplies than when those claims came from people who made empty promises.

In research by Emily Cogsdill and colleagues, children were presented with pairs of computer-generated faces that adults had previously rated as highly trustworthy or as not very trustworthy.

And children showed great agreement, or consensus, in their own ratings and judged the faces deemed more trustworthy as nice and the faces deemed untrustworthy as mean.

So, they showed these same faces to children who were three to four years of age, five to six, and seven to ten years of age, and they found that children across all of these age groups showed great consensus, or agreement, and rated the faces that were deemed as highly trustworthy as nice and the faces that were deemed untrustworthy as mean.

So, this research shows that judgments about how trustworthy someone is does not require having evidence about someone.

Children can make first impressions about how trustworthy you are based on how you appear.