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Do I trust you or not?

01. April 2020

LFE study sheds light on distrust and deception among children of Hai||om

“No, I wasn’t snacking…”, “I didn’t do that…” – at around three years of age, children start telling little lies that become more and more sophisticated as they get older. “We now know that children from urban environments in Europe and the United States can lie at the age of 4-5, if not earlier,” explains Roman Stengelin from the Leipzig Research Center for Early Childhood Development. At this age, children also notice that the information they receive from other people depends on the context. In other words: children learn to distinguish when they can trust whom. For example, a child would trust a person more if the person had similar goals as the child. It can, therefore, be said that children, on the one hand, recognize that they cannot trust everyone equally and, on the other hand, develop their own deception strategies. How these two phenomena are connected has hardly been researched so far, as Roman Stengelin describes. Previous studies have mostly researched lies and mistrust separately. Moreover, the children there had mostly interacted with strange adults or with hand puppets. “In everyday life, however, children mostly play with their peers and acquaintances. Here a lie can have negative consequences that go far beyond the study.” Moreover, there have been very few studies to date that examine traditional village societies outside western industrialized nations. According to Stengelin, however, these contexts are very interesting: “People know each other, they are not anonymous. Perhaps one shares property anyway, instead of accumulating resources exclusively for oneself”. To fill this research gap, a study was conducted with children of the Hai||om. The Hai||om are an indigenous ethnic group and live in Namibia. Until a few decades ago, they traditionally lived as hunter-gatherers, a way of life that has still of great relevance to the Hai||om today.

For the study, 64 children between four and eight were divided into pairs in which they played either together (cooperative) or against each other (competitive). During the game, the children took on two roles: One player (sender) was shown a secret place where sweets were hidden. He was allowed to give a hint to his fellow player where to look for the reward. The player (receiver) then decided whether to take this advice or to look elsewhere. “You could literally see how the children reacted to their teammates and put themselves in their shoes,” Roman Stengelin describes. “They were thinking: ‘Do you believe me or don’t you believe me? Are you kidding me or are you telling the truth?’ This was very exciting and enlightening both for me and for my colleague!” Afterward the roles were changed without the children knowing whether their previous strategy had been successful.

On the basis of observations that have been made in Western cultures, the researchers assumed that the children were less trusting with their fellow players and more likely to use deception in competitive games. The results only partially supported this assumption: “We were able to show that even the youngest children distrusted their fellow players when they pursued conflicting interests in the game.” So the children assumed that their partners were lying to them in order to take advantage of it. “We also found that children who lie are more likely to distrust others – those who lie are more likely to expect others to do the same.” reports Stengelin. If both players pursued the same goal, the children almost always trusted each other. However, there was an important difference to the previous results: While children in Western cultures often used deception, this was rarely observed among the Hai||om as a whole.

The different results could have different causes. On the one hand, the interaction between children was investigated for the first time. In addition, this study was the first to investigate the distrust and deception of children in a rural, non-Western population. It could be, for example, that a deception of a familiar, peer group of the same age violates social conventions. Such conventions might be more important especially in village communities. However, Roman Stengelin sees another starting point: “Perhaps the children also suspected that their partner would mistrust them anyway, and therefore deceived him twice, so to speak. Such thoughts are very demanding for children at this age – we need new studies to weigh up these possibilities”.

Picture: Leonore Blume

24. March 2020
ESPP 2020 cancelled
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