Review of Philosophy and Psychology

, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 551–561 | Cite as

Children’s Selective Learning from Others

  • Erika NurmsooEmail author
  • Elizabeth J. Robinson
  • Stephen A. Butterfill


Psychological research into children’s sensitivity to testimony has primarily focused on their ability to judge the likely reliability of speakers. However, verbal testimony is only one means by which children learn from others. We review recent research exploring children’s early social referencing and imitation, as well as their sensitivity to speakers’ knowledge, beliefs, and biases, to argue that children treat information and informants with reasonable scepticism. As children’s understanding of mental states develops, they become ever more able to critically evaluate whether to believe new information.


Naming Task Knowledge State Mental Life False Belief Task Head Action 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We would like to thank Christophe Heintz and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments. The research was supported by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council, U.K. (RES-000-22-1847) to the second author.


  1. Birch, S.A.J., S.A. Vauthier, and P. Bloom. 2008. Three- and four-year-olds spontaneously use others’ past performance to guide their learning. Cognition 107: 1018–1034.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Brugger, A., L.A. Lariviere, D.L. Mumme, and E.W. Bushnell. 2007. Doing the right thing: Infants’ selection of actions to imitate from observed event sequences. Child Development 78: 806–824.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chouinard, M. (2007). Children’s questions: A mechanism for cognitive development. Monographs of the society for research in child development. Serial no. 296, vol 72, no 1. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5834.2007.00413.x.
  4. Csibra, G., and G. Gergely. 2005. Social learning and social cognition: The case for pedagogy. In Processes of change in brain and cognitive development. Attention and performance XXI, ed. M.H. Johnson and Y. Munakatas, 249–274. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into truth and interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Dummett, M. 1973. Frege: Philosophy of language. London: Duckworth.Google Scholar
  7. Gee, C.L., and G.D. Heyman. 2007. Children’s evaluation of other people’s self-descriptions. Social Development 16: 200–818.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Gergely, G., and G. Csibra. 2005. The social construction of the cultural mind: Imitative learning as a mechanism of human pedagogy. Interaction Studies 6: 463–481.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Gergely, G., H. Bekkering, and I. Kiraly. 2002. Rational imitation in preverbal infants. Nature 415: 755.Google Scholar
  10. Harris, P.L. 2007. Trust. Developmental Science 10: 135–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Jaswal, V.K., and L.A. Neely. 2006. Adults don’t always know best: Preschoolers use past reliability over age when learning new words. Psychological Science 17: 757–758.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Koenig, M.A., and C.H. Echols. 2003. Infants’ understanding of false labelling events: The referential roles of words and the speakers who use them. Cognition 87: 179–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Koenig, M.A., and P.L. Harris. 2005. Preschoolers mistrust ignorant and inaccurate speakers. Child Development 76: 1261–1277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Koenig, M.A., and P.L. Harris. 2007. The basis of epistemic trust: Reliable testimony or reliable sources? Episteme 4: 264–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Koenig, M.A., F. Clement, and P.L. Harris. 2004. Trust in testimony: Children's use of true and false statements. Psychological Science 15: 694–698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Meltzoff, A.N. 1988. Infant imitation after a one week delay: Long term memory for novel acts and multiple stimuli. Developmental Psychology 24: 470–476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Mills, C.M., and F.C. Keil. 2005. The development of cynicism. Psychological Science 16: 385–390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Nurmsoo, E., and E.J. Robinson. 2009a. Children's trust in previously inaccurate informants who were well or poorly informed: When past errors can be excused. Child Development 80: 23–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Nurmsoo, E., and E.J. Robinson. 2009b. Identifying unreliable informants: Do children excuse past inaccuracy? Developmental Science 12: 41–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Pasquini, E.S., K.H. Corriveau, M. Koenig, and P.L. Harris. 2007. Preschoolers monitor the relative accuracy of informants. Developmental Psychology 43: 1216–1226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Pea, R.D. 1982. Origins of verbal logic: Spontaneous denials by two- and three-year-olds. Journal of Child Language 9: 597–626.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Robinson, E.J., and E. Nurmsoo. 2009. When do children learn from unreliable speakers? Cognitive Development 24: 16–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Robinson, E.J., and E.L. Whitcombe. 2003. Children’s suggestibility in relation to their understanding about sources of knowledge. Child Development 74: 48–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Robinson, E.J., S.N. Haigh, and E. Nurmsoo. 2008. Children’s working understanding of knowledge sources: Confidence in knowledge gained from testimony. Cognitive Development 23: 105–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Robinson, E.J., S.A. Butterfill, and E. Nurmsoo. in press. Gaining knowledge via other minds: Children’s flexible trust in others as sources of information. British Journal of Developmental Psychology.Google Scholar
  26. Scofield, J., and D.A. Behrend. 2008. Learning words from reliable and unreliable speakers. Cognitive Development 23: 278–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Sorce, J.F., R.N. Emde, J. Campos, and M.D. Klinnert. 1985. Maternal emotional signalling: Its effect on the visual cliff behavior of 1-year-olds. Developmental Psychology 21: 195–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Tamis-LeMonda, C.S., K.E. Adolph, S.A. Lobo, L.B. Karasik, S. Ishak, and K.A. Dimitropoulou. 2008. When infants take mothers’ advice: 18-month-olds integrate perceptual and social information to guide motor action. Developmental Psychology 44: 734–746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Whitcombe, E.L., and E.J. Robinson. 2000. Children’s decisions about what to believe and their ability to report the source of their belief. Cognitive Development 15: 329–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Zarbatany, L., and M.E. Lamb. 1985. Social referencing as a function of information source: Mothers versus strangers. Infant Behavior & Development 8: 25–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Erika Nurmsoo
    • 1
    Email author
  • Elizabeth J. Robinson
    • 2
  • Stephen A. Butterfill
    • 2
  1. 1.School of PsychologyUniversity of KentCanterburyUK
  2. 2.University of WarwickCoventryUK

Personalised recommendations