Carrie Palmquist, Amherst College – Differences in Snap Judgments Between Children and Adults

On Amherst College Week: Do kids react differently to faces than adults?

Carrie Palmquist, assistant professor of psychology, explores this question.

Carrie Palmquist is an assistant professor of psychology at Amherst College. She received her BA in psychology and linguistics from the College of William and Mary and her PhD in developmental psychology from the University of Virginia. As the director of the Child Learning and Development Lab at Amherst College, her research explores how children learn from their interactions with other people. In particular, her lab investigates factors that lead children to trust some individuals, and remain skeptical of others. This work has focused primarily on how individual differences in children (i.e., inhibitory control and theory of mind) as well as differences in potential sources of information (i.e., previous helpfulness and appearance) affect how children develop and maintain trust in others.

Differences in Snap Judgments Between Children and Adults

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We know that adults make snap judgments—correct or otherwise—about competence, trustworthiness, dominance and other characteristics based on specific facial features. But do kids have similar biases when it comes to associating particular traits with physical appearances? 

My team and I explore this question by showing preschoolers a pair of faces in which one of the faces was judged by adults as being trustworthy-looking and the other less so. The other half of the children saw a pair of faces in which one was more competent-looking and the other less so. We found that children were more likely to associate the trustworthy-looking face with knowledgeable behavior (for example, displaying an understanding of the function of a familiar object, like a set of keys), but not the competent-looking face. This suggests that young children may rely on broader, more familiar (and sometimes inappropriate) characteristics—like trustworthiness rather than competence—when identifying knowledgeable individuals.

In a second set of experiments using the same faces, we examined whether kids would predict future behavior based on appearance. We showed children one of the two pairs of faces and asked them to identify which character was more likely to know the name of an unfamiliar object. We found an interesting developmental difference between the 4- and 5-year-olds: Although 4-year-olds still predicted that the trustworthy character would be knowledgeable, 5-year-olds were more likely to predict that the competent character would be knowledgeable. This suggests that between ages of 4 and 5, children may begin to distinguish between trustworthiness and competence.

So what can we learn from this? Very young children do make inferences about trustworthiness and competence based on appearance. But their concept of knowledgeable individuals quickly becomes more complex, allowing them to disentangle trustworthiness from competence when seeking help from others.

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