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


Contributor / Melissa Koenig

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

"Kids will believe anything." That statement may often be said humorously, but the credulous nature of children can provide helpful insight on how trust works. Koenig discusses the two different kinds of trust children experience: epistemic, in which children have positive evidence regarding the person they’re trusting, and interpersonal, in which there’s generally no reason for the trust to be extended. Why kids trust, whether they can be confident in an adult because of that person’s track-record, or whether children just see adults as a source of help they rely on, can begin to paint a broader picture of how both children and adults trust.


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.

Related Videos

How Children Gauge Trustworthiness: Key Findings

Contributor / Melissa Koenig
Melissa Koenig Human Development in Psychology Trust Formation,Reciprocity,Swift Trust 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.

How We Understand Trust in Romantic Relationships: Key Findings

Contributor / Eli Finkel
Eli Finkel Relationships Trust Formation,Definitions,Breaches If we’re focusing on the modern relationship signs of trust, the best place to start is probably with John Bowlby’s seminal monograph on attachment theory.

In this monograph, published in 1969, Bowlby observes that when we’re infants, we are extremely dependent on our caregivers for sensitive support.

If our parents provide us with sensitive support, we tend to conclude that we ourselves are worthy of love and that our significant others can be trusted. If we’re not treated with sensitive support, we draw just the opposite conclusions.

To an extent, we carry these lessons with us throughout the rest of our lives.

Three Dimensions of Trust in Romantic Relationships

The first major theoretical and empirical piece laying out the framework for understanding trust in romantic relationships was Rempel, Holmes, and Zanna’s 1985 paper.

Rempel and colleagues argued that there are three dimensions underlying trust, and they built a self-report instrument to assess each of these three dimensions.

The first dimension is predictability, and they assess it with items like “I am familiar with the patterns of behavior my partner has established, and I can rely on him or her to behave in certain ways.”

The second dimension is dependability, which they assess with items like “I can count on my partner to be concerned about my welfare.”

The third dimension is faith, which they assess with items like “Though times may change and the future is uncertain, I know my partner will always be ready and willing to offer me strength and support.”

The reason why faith is so crucial is that we can never know what situations we’re going to face—whether our partner might encounter some temptation or whether circumstances might get difficult financially and so forth.

And so, it’s really when we have faith in the partner that we’re willing to take this flying leap and make ourselves vulnerable despite all of that uncertainty about the future.

Importance of Diagnostic Situations

Four years later, John Holmes and John Rempel published another piece, a chapter that really served as the first major theory of trust in romantic relationships.

Perhaps the most important thing that it did was it introduced the idea of the diagnostic situation.

If we watch our partner behave nicely to us in a way that happens to be what he or she would like to do anyway, it’s not diagnostic about whether we can trust our partner, whether he’s behaving in a way that warrants us developing faith in him or her.

It’s really when we see situations where the partner is willing to make a sacrifice for us that we can then conclude that we are safe depending upon our partner, that we in fact trust our partner.

Whitewashing the Past Enhances Trust

One of the major ways in which our level of trust in our partner influences our lives is that it biases our memories in ways that benefit our relationship.

In a project that we spearheaded here at Northwestern, we were interested in how trust can bias people’s memories of actual relationship events.

Building on the idea that trust is ultimately a leap of faith, a determination that we can rely on our partner in the future, we explored the idea that trust makes us misremember our partner’s transgressions in a way that makes them seem more benign than they really were.

We conducted four longitudinal studies where we had people record in real time each instance in which their partner did something that hurt or offended them.

What this method allowed us to do is to compare the extent to which they felt hurt and angry at the time with their memory two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks later about how much they thought they were hurt at the time.

What was interesting in these results is that the extent to which we trust our partner predicts our misremembering of the past in a way that makes us more fulfilled in our relationship.

"To be clear, this isn’t forgiveness in the sense that you say, “Well, I’m not as upset as I used to be”; this is a whitewashing of the past. You are in fact misremembering your own personal experience about how you felt at the time of the event.

And it is precisely this whitewashing that helps trust make our relationship as strong as possible.

Other pages in Videos:

Pages in The Trust Project at Northwestern University