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Selective Credulity

Harris Photo

Paul Harris
Harvard University Graduate School of Education

Thursday 7 July, 2011,
NSF Stafford I, Room 110

Paul L. Harris, "Selective Credulity"


Young children readily act on information from adults, setting aside their own prior convictions and even continuing to trust informants who make claims that are manifestly false. Such credulity is consistent with a long-standing philosophical and scientific conception of young children as prone to indiscriminate trust. Against this conception, we argue that children trust some informants more than others. In particular, they use two major heuristics. First, they keep track of the history of potential informants. Faced with conflicting claims, they endorse claims made by someone who has provided reliable care or reliable information in the past. Second, they monitor the cultural standing of potential informants. Faced with conflicting claims, children endorse claims made by someone who belongs to a consensus and whose behaviour abides by, rather than deviates from, the norms of their group. The first heuristic is likely to promote receptivity to information offered by familiar caregivers whereas the second heuristic is likely to promote a broader receptivity to informants from the same culture.


Paul Harris is a developmental psychologist with interests in the development of cognition, emotion and imagination. After studying psychology at Sussex and Oxford, he taught at the University of Lancaster, the Free University of Amsterdam and the London School of Economics. In 1980, he moved to Oxford where he was Professor of Developmental Psychology and Fellow of St John's College. In 2001, he migrated to Harvard where he holds the Victor S. Thomas Professorship of Education. He is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. For 2006-2007, he received a Guggenheim award. His latest book: 'The work of the imagination' appeared in 2000. (Blackwell). He is currently study how young children learn about history, science and religion on the basis of what trusted informants tell them, rather than from first-hand observation.