Child Development Study Result

Category: Science
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Previous child development research has established that children learn novel labels in both direct and indirect conditions (e.g. Gampe, Liebal, & Tomasello, 2012; Shneidman, Gweon, Schulz, & Woodward, 2016). In one study by Gampe et al. (2012), eighteen-month-olds equally learned novel labels when directly addressed and engaged in joint attention with a speaker and when just overhearing the conversation of two adults. Studies have also illustrated that children will accept counter-intuitive testimony from adults, even when the information conflicts with their own perceptions (Jaswal, 2004; Jaswal & Markman, 2007). When two- and three-year-olds were shown hybrid animal pictures with a dominant perceptual feature, for example, they initially made correct judgements but were easily swayed to convert their beliefs based on contradicting adult testimony (Jaswal & Markman, 2007). Children have been shown to be especially susceptible to accepting counterintuitive testimony when it is shared with them in a direct manner (Heyman, Sritanyaratana & Vanderbilt, 2013).

All prior research comparing children’s learning in direct and overheard conditions utilized completely novel information. It therefore remains unknown how children’s behavior would differ between conditions when the testimony presented clearly contradicts the perceptual evidence. Furthermore, not much is known regarding how children’s later reciprocity is affected by the accuracy of a speaker’s information. The primary goal of the Child Directed study was to determine if children would be more likely to convert their beliefs when counterintuitive claims were conveyed directly, as compared to being overheard. The secondary goal was to assess whether children would credit or hold the speaker accountable for accurate or inaccurate claims, particularly in the child-directed context. Since in everyday settings children have opportunities to learn from others in both direct and overheard exchanges, findings from this study can have important implications for understanding children’s learning. Results will also highlight whether the accuracy of speakers’ claims carry interpersonal significance that will affect children’s later cooperation and reciprocity.

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One-hundred four-year-old children from the IPP participated in the Child Directed study. The study consisted of four conditions: positive-directed, negative-directed, positive-overheard, and negative-overheard. In the positive conditions, the speaker (E2) made accurate claims regarding novel animals (hybrids of familiar animals- ie: squirrel/rabbit, dog/cat) and in the negative conditions, E2 made inaccurate claims regarding these animals. In the directed conditions, the speaker directly addressed the child when making claims and in the overheard conditions, the child indirectly overheard claims made to an alleged phone listener.

The study consisted of several phases. During the first phase, the familiarization phase, a baseline measure of the child’s beliefs regarding the novel animals was obtained. Two warm-up trials of the matching game then followed, in order to teach the child how to play. The phase concluded with E1 excusing herself from the room to retrieve the game. Next, during the telling phase, the child was either directly addressed by E2 or overheard E2 labeling the novel animals. Regardless of condition, E2 always asserted that the animals were the opposite of each particular child’s baseline responses. E2 then exited the room to see if the game was ready.

Following this, the matching game was played during the test phase. The child drew lines from each of the novel animals to their choice of the match below, in order to indicate what the animal was. For example, one page had a squirrel/rabbit hybrid at the top and images of carrots and nuts below. Children who believed the animal was a rabbit drew lines to the carrots and children who believed it was a squirrel drew lines to the nuts. Next, a sticker distribution task occurred, during which the correct matches were revealed. In the negative conditions, the answers were in agreement with the child’s baseline responses and in the positive conditions, the answers were the labels that E2 had provided. If children’s matches were correct, they were given a sticker to place in either their cup or E2’s cup and if their matches were incorrect, they had to choose which cup to remove a sticker from.

Subsequently, a reciprocal communication task occurred. E1 showed the child two hybrid pictures, each followed by a second picture unambiguously illustrating what the first was meant to depict (ex: a hat/cup hybrid followed by a picture of that same item on a child’s head, in order to illustrate it was a hat), while E2 pretended to read a magazine with headphones on. The child was then given the choice to tell E2 what the picture was or to keep it a secret. Once the child made the decision, E2 was directed to look at the picture. In response, E2 questioned what the picture was and the child either informed or withheld the information from E2. This same procedure occurred for both picture trials and also for two novel object function trials.

Lastly, after E2 exited the room, the study concluded with an explicit evaluation. Children in the negative conditions were asked whether they thought E2 provided inaccurate labels in order to trick them or if E2 simply was unaware that their answers were incorrect. Children in the positive conditions were asked why they changed their beliefs about the novel animals. Children in all conditions were then asked whether they thought E2 had been nice, just ok, or naughty; if they felt E2 was helpful or unhelpful; and to rate how E2 had made them feel.

Main Findings

The first finding of the Child Directed study was that direct address does influence children’s deference to counter-intuitive claims. This was evident since children in the directed conditions were more likely to convert their beliefs about the novel animals than were children in the overheard conditions. Second, results demonstrated that during the telling phase, children in the directed conditions were significantly more likely to spontaneously protest E2’s labeling and to protest in a greater number of trials. Next, across all four conditions, children were significantly above chance in the proportion of trials in which they blamed E2, as demonstrated by removal of E2’s stickers. Similarly, children were below chance in the proportion of trials in which they credited E2, as illustrated by sharing stickers. These findings did not differ significantly as a function of directedness or negativity. Lastly, the accuracy of E2’s claims, but not directedness, carried interpersonal significance for children. This was illustrated by the fact that children who altered their beliefs in response to E2’s inaccurate claims less readily shared new information in the reciprocal communication task than children presented with accurate claims. Consistent with these findings, children’s overall evaluation of and feelings toward E2 was significantly affected by negativity, but not by directedness.


While the findings of the Child-Directed study are certainly significant, various factors may have impacted these findings. First, one must question whether children removing tattoo stickers from E2’s cup rather than their own is a good measure of accountability. It is quite plausible that children’s desires for stickers would override their reasoning about speaker accountability, and the fact that children provided with accurate information still chose to remove stickers from E2’s cup supports this reasoning. Given the choice and that E2 was not present in the room, it is not surprising that children chose to remove stickers from E2’s cup.

It is also necessary to question whether it is possible to extrapolate that children’s secret keeping in the reciprocal communication task signified the intent to withhold information. It seems probable that children, who are known to be enamored with secrets, were not intending to punish E2 but were just eager to keep secrets. If conducting a similar study in the future, it would be interesting to see if results would be affected by substituting more neutral language in this same task. Asking in a way such as, “Do you want to tell E2 what this is/what this is for or do you not want to share this with E2?” would exclude the possibility that the enticement of secret keeping was accountable for children’s behavior.

Another critique relates to the overheard condition, in which the phone rang and E2 had a conversation revealing the animal labels to the fictitious character Sam. While this enabled children to overhear the alternate labeling instead of being overtly addressed, designing the condition in this manner necessitated children to assume that Sam had the exact same novel pictures. This required abstract thinking from the children and may have also seemed peculiar to them, especially when considering that these animals were part of a matching game. It is highly unrealistic for someone to call another person to obtain the answers for a game they are playing with another individual. This, therefore, may have contributed to children being more reluctant to convert their beliefs in the overheard conditions.

Finally, it is necessary to question the fact that children in the directed conditions were not more likely to share or withhold information from E2, dependent on the accuracy of E2’s prior claims. It seems that if children were more susceptible to accepting counter-intuitive testimony communicated in a direct and interpersonal manner, then they would also be more likely to help or withhold from helping E2 than children in the overheard conditions. Similarly, there remains confusion as to why children in the directed conditions were not more likely to keep secrets from E2 nor did their evaluations of E2 significantly differ from those of children in the overheard conditions.


  1. Gampe, A., Liebal, K., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Eighteen-month-old learn novel words through overhearing. First Language, 32(3), 385-397.
  2. Heyman, G.D., Sritanyaratana, L. & Vanderbilt, K.E. (2013). Young children’s trust in overtly misleading advice. Cognitive Science, 37(4), 646-667.
  3. Jaswal, V.K. (2004). Don’t believe everything you hear: Preschoolers’ sensitivity to speaker intent in category induction. Child Development, 75(6), 1871-1885.
  4. Jaswal, V.K. & Markman, E.M. (2007). Looks aren’t everything: 24-month-olds’ willingness to accept unexpected labels. Journal of Cognition and Development, 8(1), 93-111.
  5. Shneidman, L., Gweon, H., Schulz, L.E., & Woodward, A.L. (2016). Learning from others and spontaneous exploration: A cross-cultural investigation. Child Development, 87(3), 723-735. 
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Child Development Study Result. (2021, Nov 20). Retrieved from

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