Current Projects

Overview

At the Early Language and Experience Lab, we investigate how infants and young children learn from what other people tell them. We think this is an important question because so much of what we know comes from other people - through direct conversations, from overhearing others, from reading books and newspapers, to using the internet and television. From the many words offered by their parents and others, children learn about language, social values, past and future events, what town they live in, the names of their parents, the geography of the world, scientific discoveries, and many other domains that play important roles in their lives.

As adults, we are very good at learning from others. For example, many of us believe the Pythagorean's theorem, that nothing goes faster than light, and that dinosaurs are birds. But we would also admit that we could not justify or provide evidence for any of these beliefs if asked. We believe these things not because of observations we've made or proofs we've discovered, but because we have heard about them from people we trust, people who we suspect could ground their beliefs in convincing arguments. At the same time, we know that we don't trust everyone. We often doubt claims for various reasons - the source might be notoriously unreliable, the claim may not square with other things we know, the source might be joking or showing signs of insincerity.

How do children determine when to trust and when not to trust what others tell them?

Generics

Do children expect someone who uses generic noun phrases to describe an exemplar of a particular domain to have more expertise in that domain? Do they generalize that person's expertise to a similar domain, or even to a more distant domain?

Previous evidence shows that generic noun phrases are more commonly used to describe intrinsic kind-relevant properties (e.g., "Dogs bark") while specific noun phrases are more common to describe features that differ across individuals (e.g, "This dog has spots"). Children are more likely to generalize properties described with generic noun phrases (as opposed to specific) to new exemplars (Cimpian & Markman, 2009). The present study asks whether children will use this distinction to guide their future learning from one individual over another.

Origins of Virtue

If you ask a child about her favorite movie, chances are high that you'll hear all about the "good guys" and "bad guys." In children's movies, a character's virtue is often made blatantly obvious. However, in the real world, people's virtues are more complex and subtle: A friend can be cooperative while sharing toys but not very knowledgeable about how to use new toys. An older sibling can accurately teach the name of a tasty snack but refuse to help retrieve it from the pantry.

Previous research on social/moral virtue shows that infants prefer prosocial characters—such as those who helped someone achieve a goal—to antisocial characters—such as those who prevented someone from achieving that goal (Hamlin, Wynn, & Bloom, 2007; 2010). Research on epistemic virtue (Koenig, Clement, & Harris, 2004; Stephens & Koenig, 2015) similarly shows that young children prefer to learn from someone who previously used accurate names for objects (e.g., calling a shoe a "shoe") versus from someone who used inaccurate names (e.g., calling a shoe a "ball"). In this study, we are exploring when and how infants and toddlers evaluate, learn from, and help people who vary on different virtues, like the cooperative but unknowledgeable friend.

Intentions

In this study, we are interested in how children reason about intention and outcome information and how this influences epistemic decisions (i.e., to learn) and practical decisions (i.e., to wait and to share). During the study, participants will interact with an agent who either has good or bad intentions about sharing knowledge (e.g., "I really want you to know what that is") and is either accurate or inaccurate about the label of a familiar object. Participants will then be asked to indicate which of two agents (main agent vs. neutral agent) they would like to share with, wait for, and learn from. This research will provide insight into (1) the types of characteristics about other agents that children take into consideration and (2) whether or not this information is used in global or specific judgments about such agents.

Talking About Knowing

The purpose of the Knowing study is to find out how children learn from other people who come to different conclusions when presented with the same evidence, and how this learning reflects their developing understanding of what it means to know something. We also hope to discover whether or not children’s learning styles are related to parent characteristics: these include beliefs about knowledge, perspectives on childrearing, and your opinions about thinking. This research will provide further insight into children’s developing understanding of the nature of knowledge, and how that relates to their learning from others.

Judgment

Preschool children understand that the wrongness of a particular action (e.g. shoving a peer on the playground) depends on the harm and distress that such an action causes other people. However, they also have the tendency to trust and rely on what other people tell them. This study looks at how children make judgments about a novel action when adults’ claims about that action are in conflict with their own moral intuition. During this study, children will hear two short stories with pictures where the protagonists conduct made-up behaviors that make a peer cry. Children will be asked to judge whether the novel behavior is morally permissible, both independently and in with the influence of either one or three adult informants. We are interested in seeing whether children will stick with their own judgment or decide to agree with the adults.

Evaluating Ignorance

Young children regularly prefer knowledgeable, accurate, and confident speakers to ones that are ignorant, inaccurate, or unconfident (Koenig & Harris, 2005). However, when one of these more favorable speakers is not available, preschool children may be more willing to learn from some (but not all) other kinds of speakers. In this study, we are interested in 3- and 4-year-olds’ reasoning about people who do not call familiar objects, like a tree or bowl, by the right name. Specifically, we are investigating whether the different ways speakers can diverge from the knowledgeable and accurate “gold standard” speaker affect children’s willingness to trust them for new information. We are also interested in what other factors—such as a child’s understanding of other people’s thoughts and intentions or the way their parents think about knowledge and childrearing—relate to the ways children reason about different speakers.

If you have a young child and would like to find out more information about participating, please call the lab at 612-624-8822, email Dr. Koenig at mkoenig@umn.edu or click on the lab email link on the left hand side of the page.