Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

The Basis of Epistemic Trust: Reliable Testimony or Reliable Sources?


What is the nature of children's trust in testimony? Is it based primarily on evidential correlations between statements and facts, as stated by Hume, or does it derive from an interest in the trustworthiness of particular speakers? In this essay, we explore these questions in an effort to understand the developmental course and cognitive bases of children's extensive reliance on testimony. Recent work shows that, from an early age, children monitor the reliability of particular informants, differentiate between those who make true and false claims and keep that differential accuracy in mind when evaluating new information from these people. We argue that this selective trust is likely to involve the mentalistic appraisal of speakers rather than surface generalizations of their behavior. Finally, we review the significance of children's deference to adult authority on issues of naming and categorization. In addition to challenging a purely inductive account of trust, these and other findings reflect a potentially rich set of tools brought by children to the task of learning from people's testimony.

Hide All
N. Akhtar , M. Carpenter , and M. Tomasello . 1996. “The Role of Discourse Novelty in Early Word Learning.” Child Development 67: 635–45.

D. A. Baldwin 1991. “Infants' Contribution to the Achievement of Joint Reference.” Child Development 62: 875–90.

D. A. Baldwin 1993. “Early Referential Understanding: Infants' Ability to Recognize Referential Acts for What They Are.” Developmental Psychology 29: 832–43.

D. A. Baldwin , E. Markman , B. Bill , N. Desjardins , J. Irwin , and G. Tidball . 1996. “Infants' Reliance on a Social Criterion for Establishing Word-Object Relations.” Child Development 67: 3135–53.

D. A. Baldwin and L. Moses . 2001. “Links Between Social Understanding and Early Word Learning: Challenges to Current Accounts.” Social Development 10: 309–29.

I. Bretherton and M. Beeghly . 1982. “Talking about Internal States: The Acquisition of an Explicit Theory of Mind.” Developmental Psychology 18: 906–21.

S. J. Ceci , D. F. Ross , and M. P. Toglia . 1987. “Suggestibility of Children's Memory: Psycholegal Implications.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 116(1): 3849.

E. V. Clark and J. B. Grossman . 1988. “Pragmatic Directions and Children's Word Learning.” Journal of Child Language 25: 118.

F. Clément , M. Koenig , and P. L. Harris . 2004. “The Ontogenesis of Trust.” Mind and Language 19: 360–79.

J. H. Danovitch and F. C. Keil . 2004. “Should You Ask a Fisherman or a Biologist?: Developmental Shifts in Ways of Clustering Knowledge.” Child Development 75: 918–31.

L. Fenson , S. Pethick , C. Renda , J. Cox , P. Dale , and S. Reznick . 2000. “Short-form Versions of the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories.” Applied Psycholinguistics 21: 95116.

S. A. Gelman and J. D. Coley . 1990. “The Importance of Knowing a Dodo Is a Bird: Categories and Inferences in 2-year-old Children.” Developmental Psychology 26: 796804.

S. A. Gelman , P. Collman , and E. E. Maccoby . 1986. “Inferring Properties from Categories versus Inferring Categories from Properties: The Case of Gender.” Child Development 57: 396404.

S. A. Gelman and E. M. Markman . 1986. “Categories and Induction in Young Children.” Cognition 23: 183208.

S. A. Gelman and E. M. Markman . 1987. “Young Children's Inductions from Natural Kinds: The Role of Categories and Appearances.” Child Development 58: 1532–41.

A. Gopnik and P. Graf . 1988. “Knowing How You Know: Young Children's Ability to Identify and Remember the Sources of Their Beliefs.” Child Development 59: 1366–71.

S. A. Graham , H. Stock , and A. M. E. Henderson . 2006. “Nineteen-month-olds' Understanding of the Conventionality of Object Labels versus Desires.” Infancy 9: 341–50.

P. L. Harris and M. A. Koenig . 2006. “Trust in Testimony: How Children Learn about Science and Religion.” Child Development 77: 505–24.

A. M. E. Henderson and S. A. Graham . 2005. “Two-year-olds' Appreciation of the Shared Nature of Novel Object Labels.” Journal of Cognition and Development 6: 381402.

G. D. Heyman and C. S. Dweck . 1998. “Children's Thinking about Traits: Implications for Judgments of the Self and Others.” Child Development 69: 392403.

G. D. Heyman and S. A. Gelman . 2000. “Preschool Children's Use of Trait Labels to Make Inductive Inferences.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 77: 119.

V. K. Jaswal 2004. “Don't Believe Everything You Hear: Preschoolers' Sensitivity to Speaker Intent in Category Induction.” Child Development 75: 1871–85.

V. K. Jaswal and L. S. Malone . 2007. “Turning Believers into Skeptics: 3-year-olds' Sensitivity to Cues to Speaker Credibility.” Journal of Cognition and Development 8: 263–83.

V. K. Jaswal and E. M. Markman . 2007. “Looks Aren't Everything: 24-month-olds' Willingness to Accept Unexpected Labels.” Journal of Cognition and Development 8: 93111.

V. K. Jaswal and L. A. Neely . 2006. “Adults Don't Always Know Best: Preschoolers Use Past Reliability over Age When Learning New Words.” Psychological Science 17: 757–8.

M. A. Koenig , F. Clément , and P. L. Harris . 2004. “Trust in Testimony: Children's Use of True and False Statements.” Psychological Science 15: 694–8.

M. A. Koenig and C. H. Echols . 2003. “Infants' Understanding of False Labeling Events: The Referential Roles of Words and the Speakers Who Use Them.” Cognition 87: 179203.

M. A. Koenig and P. L. Harris . 2005. “Preschoolers Mistrust Ignorant and Inaccurate Speakers.” Child Development 76: 1261–77.

J. M. Lampinen and V. L. Smith . 1995. “The Incredible (and Sometimes Incredulous) Child Witness: Child Eyewitnesses' Sensitivity to Source Credibility Cues.” Journal of Applied Psychology 80: 621–7.

D. Lutz and F. C. Keil . 2002. “Early Understanding of the Division of Cognitive Labor.” Child Development 73: 1073–84.

E. M. Markman and J. Hutchinson . 1984. “Children's Sensitivity to Constraints on Word Meaning: Taxonomic versus Thematic Relations.” Cognitive Psychology 16: 127.

S. A. Miller 2000. “Children's Understanding of Preexisting Differences in Knowledge and Belief.” Developmental Review 20: 227–82.

C. Moore , D. Bryant , and D. Furrow . 1989. “Mental Terms and the Development of Certainty.” Child Development 60: 167–71.

D. K. O'Neill , J. W. Astington , and J. H. Flavell . 1992. “Young Children's Understanding of the Role That Sensory Experiences Play in Knowledge Acquisition.” Child Development 63: 474–90.

K. H. Onishi and R. Baillargeon . 2005. “Do 15-month-old Infants Understand False Belief?Science 308 (5719): 255–8.

W. S. Rholes and D. N. Ruble . 1984. “Children's Understanding of Dispositional Characteristics of Others.” Child Development 55: 550–60.

E. J. Robinson and E. C. Whitcombe . 2003. “Children's Suggestibility in Relation to Their Understanding about Sources of Knowledge.” Child Development 74: 4862.

M. A. Sabbagh and D. A. Baldwin . 2001. “Learning Words from Knowledgeable versus Ignorant Speakers: Link between Preschoolers' Theory of Mind and Semantic Development.” Child Development 72(4): 1054–70.

G. Schafer and K. Plunkett . 1998. “Rapid Word Learning by Fifteen-month-olds under Tightly Controlled Conditions.” Child Development 69: 309–20.

V. M. Sloutsky and A. V. Fisher . 2004. “Induction and Categorization in Children: A Similarity-based Model.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 133: 166–88.

M. Taylor , B. S. Cartwright , and T. Bowden . 1991. “Perspective Taking and Theory of Mind: Do Children Predict Interpretive Diversity as a Function of Differences in Observers' Knowledge?Child Development 62: 1334–51.

M. Taylor , B. M. Esbensen , and R. T. Bennett . 1994. “Children's Understanding of Knowledge Acquisition: the Tendency for Children to Report That They Have Always Known What They Have Just Learned.” Child Development 65: 1581–604.

M. Tomasello and M. Barton . 1994. “Learning Words in Nonostensive Contexts.” Developmental Psychology 30: 639–50.

S. R. Waxman and D. B. Markow . 1995. “Words as Invitations to Form Categories: Evidence from 12- to 13-month-old Infants.” Cognitive Psychology 29: 257302.

M. Welch-Ross 1999. “Interviewer Knowledge and Preschoolers' Reasoning about Knowledge States Moderates Suggestibility.” Cognitive Development 14: 423–42.

A. N. Welder and S. A. Graham . 2001. “The Influence of Shape Similarity and Shared Labels on Infants' Inductive Inferences about Nonobvious Object Properties.” Child Development 72: 1653–73.

H. Wellman , D. Cross , and J. Watson . 2001. “Meta-analysis of Theory of Mind Development: The Truth about False Belief.” Child Development 72: 655–84.

A. L. Woodward , E. M. Markman , and C. M. Fitzsimmons . 1994. “Rapid Word Learning in 13- and 18-month-olds.” Developmental Psychology 30(4): 553–66.

N. Yuill 1992. “Children's Conception of Personality Traits.” Human Development 35: 265–79.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 1742-3600
  • EISSN: 1750-0117
  • URL: /core/journals/episteme
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 133 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 575 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.