Sep 13 2022

Children Are Natural Skeptics

There is ongoing debate as to the extent that a skeptical outlook is natural vs learned in humans. There is no simple answer to this question, and human psychology is complex and multifaceted. People do demonstrate natural skepticism toward many claims, and yet seem to accept with abject gullibility other claims. For adults it can also be difficult to tease out how much skepticism is learned vs innate.

This is where developmental psychology comes in. We can examine children of various ages to see how they behave, and this may provide a window into natural human behavior. Of course, even young children are not free from cultural influences, but it at least can provide some interesting information. A recent study looked at two related questions – to children (ages 4-7) accept surprising claims from adults, and how do they react to those claims. A surprising claim is one that contradicts common knowledge that even a 4-year old should know.

In one study, for example, an adult showed the children a rock and a sponge and asked them if the rock was soft or hard. The children all believed the rock was hard. The adult then either told them that the rock was hard, or that the rock was soft (or in one iteration that the rock was softer than the sponge). When the adult confirmed the children’s beliefs, they continued in their belief. When the adult contradicted their belief, many children modified their belief. The adult then left the room under a pretense, and the children were observed through video. Unsurprisingly, they generally tested the surprising claims of the teacher through direct exploration.

This is not surprising – children generally like to explore and to touch things. However, the 6-7 year-old engaged in (or proposed during online versions of the testing) more appropriate and efficient methods of testing surprising claims than the 4-5 year-olds. For example, they wanted to directly compare the hardness of the sponge vs the rock.

Essentially what this and other research tells us is that even young children do not always believe adults, especially when they claim something surprising (that contradicts existing knowledge). Further, children will engage in exploration in order to test surprising claims. Older children will engage in more sophisticated and efficient testing. None of this is terribly surprising, but it does support the conclusion that people are naturally questioning and exploring. How does this inform a more complete picture of the nature of belief and skepticism in adults?

First we have to recognize that human behavior is driven by a cacophony of conflicting impulses and desires. This makes it difficult to “reverse engineer” specific factors from ultimate behavior. At best we can infer likely factors of influence. In this case it does seem that people have an inherent tendency to explore the world around them, and to test how things work and specific claims. Carl Sagan observed this in his frequent interactions with young students – they are curious, ask meaningful follow up questions, and are creative in proposing possible answers to questions. But older children, he also observed, tend to be reserved and reticent. He concluded that children are natural scientists, but this behavior is beaten out of them by social pressures to conform and not stand out.

Others pointed out, however, that this is only a partial picture. That while children may be naturally curious explorers, they lack the formal critical thinking or logic skills to fully engage in this behavior. People, therefore, may have a natural desire to be scientists, but that does not automatically confer the ability to do so. We also have other natural desires that conflict with the desire to question and explore, such as the desire to belong to a group.

For example, several studies have shown that the critical thinking executive function part of the brain turns off when listening to a speaker they perceive to be charismatic (which includes belonging to the listener’s ideological group). We can literally see in the brain these conflicting impulses – the tendency to be skeptical being turned off by a charismatic in-group speaker. This, in a way, supports Sagan’s view that our scientific impulses may be more innate, but we learn to conform to culture, to not question certain things, and to shape our world-view to align with others around us.

For the sake of brevity I will cut to my sense of where the research currently is, combined with my experience as an activist skeptic for several decades. It does seem that many people (I would not say all) do have a natural tendency to question and explore. We all think of ourselves as amateur philosophers and scientists. While dealing with questions that have little cultural or “tribal” significance, we tend to follow a Bayesian approach to belief (which is perfectly rational). We adjust our beliefs in proportion to new evidence as it comes in. We don’t just replace old evidence, we put it all together, but happily adjust what we believe to the evidence.

The degree to which we are able to do this depends of several things. First, our current base of knowledge. The more we know, the better we are able to incorporate new information into a well-informed model of reality. This includes evaluating the magnitude and reliability of new information, and resolving apparent conflicts of information. However, whenever our group identity, world view, self-image, or ideology is involved (when we have emotional skin in the game) the rules change significantly. We then become defensive, and engage in motivated reasoning to maintain our emotionally-significant beliefs.

Further, we need to incorporate the role of outside influence. We are not just exploring the natural world, but interacting with other humans who have their own motivations. People can lie to us, even gaslight us, push our emotional buttons, and use their charisma to turn off our critical thinking skills. They can exploit human nature to have undue influence over our beliefs, or even use misdirection and deception to influence what we think we see.

Another layer here is that people use different cognitive strategies simultaneously. In this context, perhaps most significant is the “system 1 vs system 2” thinking, or “Thinking fast and thinking slow” as Kahneman put it. Fast thinking is intuition, algorithms running in the background of our consciousness evolved to make quick good-enough decisions. Thinking slow is analytical, going through specific logical steps to arrive at a reliable conclusion. System 1 thinking is like estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar, while system 2 involves counting them to arrive at a precise number.

People do differ in the extent to which they rely on intuitive vs analytical thinking. Further, analytical thinking is a complex skill that needs to be learned, and that skill can vary tremendously among people.

So sure, children are natural scientists, even skeptics, but that only takes you so far. We have to nurture that tendency, inform it with specific knowledge and skills, and have an acute awareness of al the things that can interfere with our curiosity, or override and even hijack our logic.

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