Want to Fool a Kid? Put It In Writing


Imagine you’re in an unfamiliar city trying to find a building. You ask someone on the street, and follow their instructions until you see a sign that points another way. Do you obey the sign, or follow the person’s instructions? Most adults would choose to trust written words over oral instructions. But what would a young child do?

That’s what researchers, led by Kathleen Corriveau at Boston University, did in a recent study. They tested 59 kids, ranging in age from 3 to 6, using a Y-shaped apparatus with two colored tubes – red and blue — over a cup. One of the tubes was blocked, and the kids had to decide which tube to put a marble down in the hopes of earning a sticker.

The kids got input from two puppets – one would tell them to “put it in the blue tube” and the other would open an envelope and read the results: “this says red.”

Before the kids could read, regardless of their age, they were equally likely to choose either the oral and written instructions. But once they started reading, they chose the puppet with written instructions 75 percent of the time.

A follow-up used a third puppet whispered in the spoken-instruction puppet ear. That didn’t change the results. A third experiment showed that kids were tuned into the actual text, and weren’t swayed by a symbolic representation – a red dot.

Adults are also likely to trust signs over verbal instructions, say the researchers – and who doesn’t have a family member who says that something is the absolute truth “because it’s on the internet”?

But where exactly does this in-text-we-trust conviction come from? After all, the researchers point out, many children’s books are far from factual. “Children are told stories about talking animals, magical transformations, and non-existent creatures. Recent findings show that preschoolers realize that the protagonists embedded in such fantastical stories are make-believe,” they write.

It may have something to do with action – when an adult reads a recipe, a map, a menu, a price sticker, a set of instructions, or a label, “children will often have an opportunity to see the adult subsequently engage in actions guided by what they have read.” But pre-readers should also have the same impulses, and they don’t.

Corriveau says that an important shift takes place when children start to read by themselves, but it’s still something of a mysterious transformation. “What is it about these symbols? We’re still puzzling how children get to decode what is so special about text.”


Corriveau, K., Einav, S., Robinson, E., & Harris, P. (2014). To the letter: Early readers trust print-based over oral instructions to guide their actions British Journal of Developmental PsychologyDOI: 10.1111/bjdp.12046