How Children Gauge Trustworthiness: Key Findings


Contributor / Melissa Koenig

Director of the Early Language and Experience Lab
Professor, Institute of Child Development
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.

Related Videos

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.
Negotiation Across Cultures Depends on Trust

Negotiating Across Cultures Depends on Trust: A Psychologist’s Perspective

Contributor / Jeanne Brett
Jeanne Brett Negotiations Definitions,Swift Trust,Communication,Reciprocity, Institutions and Context I study culture and negotiation strategy, and trust is a very important concept for researchers like me. We define trust pretty much the way people in other disciplines define trust—with an emphasis on benevolence and integrity.

What we find is that negotiators who trust use strategy in a way that allows them to negotiate high-quality agreements. What they do is they share a little information about their own interests and priorities and they ask for information from their counterpart about their counterpart’s interest and priorities.

Now, an interest in negotiation—that concept—refers to the reason underlying why negotiators are asking for what they want. So, it’s the reason why you’re asking for what you’re asking: why do you want that? It answers the “why” question.

Priorities refer to, what issues are more important, and what issues are less important? Negotiators who trust and share information about interests and priorities, learn about the interests and priorities of their counterpart are able to trade things off and create high-quality agreements.

But of course to do that, you have to make yourself a little vulnerable because you’re sharing information that the other party could take advantage of. And so, the key question in our research is, who trusts and why?

BUMPER: Trust across Cultures

And one answer to that question is culture. I’d like you to take a look at the chart that plots World Values Survey trust data by regions of the world.

The World Values Survey is run by a group of scholars that collect data from a representative sample of about a thousand people within a nation, ages 18 to 80.

And they come back every two or three years.

Their trust question is, “Most people could be trusted—yes or no?” And so, what you see in the chart is the percentage, averaged by nation, of people who say, “We can trust other people.”

Before we look too carefully at the data in the chart, there are two things we need to address. One is, this is a single-issue question. And behavioral scholars like myself don’t like single-issue questions; they worry about reliability.

But because we have data from these nations, collected with this exact same question over many, many different years, you can look at the reliability across time.

And when you look at the reliability of the trust question, it’s over .90 on average across time. So, the question is reliable.

The other potential threat to validity of this question is that people in different cultures interpret trust differently when they ask a question, “Can people in your culture be trusted?”

But again, scholars have looked at this question, they ask people, “What do you believe in? What do you believe trust means?” and they get consistently the same answer over and over again—integrity and benevolence.

So, if we take a look at the data, you might infer—from seeing that trust is relatively high in the West and in East Asia, and relatively low in South Asia and in the Middle East and in Latin America—that East Asians and Westerners are going to be using a lot of strategy that shares information, and people in Latin America and in the Middle East and South Asia aren’t.

And you’d only be half right.

It turns out that the research on negotiation in the West shows a lot of information sharing, a lot of cooperative behavior, but we don’t see the same thing in East Asia.

And the question again is, why?

BUMPER: Swift Trust

It turns out, in the West, negotiators seem to use something that we call “swift trust.” And the idea of swift trust was coined by some researchers, Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer.

And they were studying film crews. They looked at film crews and they said, “These are people who come together to do a highly interdependent job. They frequently don’t know each other—maybe by reputation, but they haven’t worked together in the past.

But they come together and they coalesce very rapidly and they are very cooperative. And why does that happen?” these researchers asked.
And they said, “It happens because they assume the other is a professional. They assume that the other is trustworthy.”

And as soon as you signal that you think someone else is trustworthy, that has two or three implications. One is, they would have to be a cad not to follow up and step up to your expectations of trust.

But the other is, you’re signaling something about yourself—that you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable to the other party and believe that they are trustworthy.

In negotiation research, we see very much the same thing in our North American and Northern European data. Negotiators come to the table and make the assumption that the counterpart is trustworthy.

And they then go in and ask questions, get a little information about those very important interests and priorities, offer a little information in return. And in that counterpoint–point–counterpoint, they begin to justify the assumption of trust that they made in the first place, and they begin to solidify that trust because they have behavior that they see of the other party.

BUMPER: Trust and Social Sanctions

So, let’s take a look at the data from East Asia. Consistently, in study after study, we find East Asians are extremely competitive in negotiation. And this, of course, is not what we would expect, looking at the trust data.

A really good answer to the question of why the East Asians do not seem to act in a trustworthy fashion in negotiation was given by Toshio Yamagishi, a Japanese psychologist.

He was studying social dilemmas. Now, a social dilemma is a multiparty prisoner’s dilemma. It’s a commons problem in economics.

The tension in a social dilemma is that if all the parties cooperate, everyone shares a larger piece of the pie, a larger set of resources. If, however, everyone competes, they share a smaller set of resources.

What it means is, for you, if you compete and the rest of us cooperate, you do really well, but we do very poorly. And what Yamagishi found is that his Japanese students in a social dilemma situation would cooperate as long as there were sanctions for failure to cooperate, or competition.

When he removed the sanctions, the Japanese students competed like crazy. Yamagishi then repeated his research in the United States with American students.

And he found, first of all, that the American students were much higher trusting than the Japanese were and that they would cooperate in both the situation where there were sanctions, but they would also cooperate pretty much at the same level in situations in which there were no sanctions.

So, Yamagishi explained his results by looking at Japanese society. And what he described Japanese society is a society that’s very tightly controlled by social norms, by social monitoring, and by social sanctioning.

And he said what happened then in his research is that when monitoring and sanctioning was missing, in the situation of a social dilemma, the Japanese students competed.

But he described the United States culture as much looser in terms of norms, monitoring, and sanctioning.
And he said, “Look, the Americans have an internal moral compass that directs them to be cooperative. They don’t need and don’t expect the external controls that are characteristic of the Japanese society.”

If we take a look a look again at the trust chart and look at the Middle East and South Asia and look at Latin America, we see pretty uniformly low trust. And that would predict that we would have a lot of difficulty in negotiations—not a lot of information sharing, not a lot of high-quality agreements.

There’s much more limited negotiation data in the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America. But it shows not a lot of cooperation, not a lot of trust, at least in the Middle East and in South Asia.

But the Latin American data are more interesting. The Latin American data show much more complexity.

For example, in some data that I have from Brazil—in fact, I’ve collected data from Brazilian managers several different times over the past 10 years—I get a lot of cooperation, a lot of information sharing, and really high-quality outcomes.

In some Spanish data, we saw that when the Spanish were negotiating with each other, they weren’t sharing information and they got low-quality outcomes; compared to the US negotiators, when they’re negotiating with each other, using more information sharing, getting higher-quality outcomes. You see that difference in trust.

But what was interesting, in the next part of the data, is when the Spanish were negotiating with the Americans. And there, the Americans continued to share information, ask for information, and the Spanish started to do that too.

And they got a lot more insight about what was important, more and less important, to their counterparts, and they negotiated much better deals in the intercultural negotiations with the Americans than they did in the intracultural negotiations with other Spanish counterparts.

So, looking at all this data, my research team concluded that trust isn’t enough to explain the relationship between culture and negotiation strategy. Taking our cue from Yamagishi’s research, we turn to some more recent work in cultural psychology by Michele Gelfand.

BUMPER: Cultural Tightness and Looseness

Michele Gelfand studies a concept that she calls “cultural tightness–cultural looseness.” And it’s very similar to the way Yamagishi described Japanese culture versus American culture.

A tight culture, according to Michele Gelfand, is one where there are strong social norms, there is monitoring of social norms, there is sanctioning of failure to conform to social norms.

And maybe it would help to have a little story to explain what that might look like if you’ve never been in Japan or East Asia.

One of my executive education students said, “I’ve got a story, professor.” He said,

“My wife and I were living in Japan. I was an expat working for an American company over there. And we decided we wanted that full cultural experience, so we rented a house in a Japanese community, not an expat community.”

And he said, “Our first major challenge was figuring out how to properly sort our recyclables because it’s very strict in Japan.”

And he said, “We tried really hard to get everything in the right bag. And then the recycle truck was coming the next night, and we would put everything out where it was supposed to be. And then we would see our neighbors coming out of their homes, going through our recycle bags, resorting it so that it was correct.”

The neighbors thought it was important for the neighborhood that the recycling be done appropriately. So, here’s a very strong set of norms, monitoring, and sanctioning.

They didn’t really sanction directly this expat couple, but the expat couple was sufficiently embarrassed that they kept working on getting their recycling right.

So, Michele Gelfand and her colleagues, all around the world, collected cultural tightness–looseness data from participants—these were mostly teachers and university students.

They asked a series of questions about how culture operated, and how tight those norms were, how much sanctioning and monitoring was going on.

So, you see in this chart how those same countries fall out on cultural tightness–looseness. These are all the same nations that we show in the trust scale. And what do you see?

We see that Western culture is a loose culture (that’s no surprise), East Asian culture is a tight culture (that’s no surprise), the Middle East and South Asia are also a tight culture, but those interesting Latin Americans are a loose culture.

So, what we have in Latin America, and maybe the way to explain what we see in the negotiation data in Latin American, is that Latin Americans live in a loose culture.
That means they can’t assume on a day-in, day-out basis, they can’t predict other people’s behavior. They don’t have expectations the way the tight-culture East Asians or Middle Easterners do.

What they have to do is navigate a loose culture and navigate a low-trust, loose culture. What do they do? They certainly don’t engage in swift trust—that assumption that everyone else is trustworthy.

What they do is they build slow trust; their focus is on building relationships. And they do all the things—getting to know you as a person, learning about your family, finding commonalities in interests in sports, in interests in food—to get a relationship going with you that has nothing to do with a negotiation.

But if they can build a common path with you personally, they build a relationship to be able to negotiate cooperatively.

And so, my colleagues and I think that there’s more to culture and negotiation strategy than just trust. It’s that interface between trust and cultural tightness–looseness that accounts for how negotiators in different parts of the world use strategy.

Other pages in Videos:

Pages in The Trust Project at Northwestern University