Toddlers Avoid Dissenters

The majoritarian instinct arrives very early.  The latest Psychological Science says toddlers prefer advice from toddlers who agreed with a majority: 

In two experiments, 3- and 4-year-olds were tested for their sensitivity to agreement and disagreement among informants. In pretest trials, they watched as three of four informants (Experiment 1) or two of three informants (Experiment 2) indicated the same referent for an unfamiliar label; the remaining informant was a lone dissenter who indicated a different referent. Asked for their own judgment, the preschoolers sided with the majority rather than the dissenter. In subsequent test trials, one member of the majority and the dissenter remained present and continued to provide conflicting information about the names of unfamiliar objects. Children remained mistrustful of the dissenter. They preferred to seek and endorse information from the informant who had belonged to the majority. The implications and scope of children's early sensitivity to group consensus are discussed.

Of course this can be interpreted either as an info or conformity strategy.

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  • I’d be astonished if language acquisition didn’t work that way.

  • Fabio

    To me, this does not look like “avoiding dissent” as much as the only sensible way of learning a language. Labels are inherently arbitrary, so it makes sense to assign them the referent assigned to them by the majority, since the purpose of language is to communicate and therefore you want to assign labels to the same referents everybody else does. As for subsequent identifications by members of the majority and a dissenter, without further information is only rational to assume that the person that was “right” before is more likely to be right now, considering that in “label assignment” right is just sharing the majority opinion.

  • I think the point is not that the children are wrong to apply this heuristic, but rather that this is a possible mechanism for where the heuristic (which is not appropriate for all cases) comes from.

  • frelkins

    I agree with Josh. The easiest way to learn “foreign” vocabulary is point to an object and ask Mommy/Danish speaking friend/French teacher/native on the beach/whatever “what’s that?”

    Since words in any language are social products, of course you go with the majority, unless you are strongly signaling an in-group via slang.

    Altho’ my mother has a thing about hating oatmeal and always refers to it as “library paste,” that doesn’t mean I would offer that as a correct vocabulary term for the Irish steel-cut product when teaching a Martian English.

  • HH

    I’ll have to second (third) the above and say that I’m not sure how informative the study is because it centers on language. As posters above have pointed out, language acquisition is almost certainly biased in favor of the majority. I’d be interested to see how kids respond to a different situation, where the majority is purely expressing preferences [say, favorite color] rather than conveying information. It would be clearer, then, that children follow the majority for reasons of conformity.

    My guess is that, since language acquisition is likely biased toward accepting majority opinions, our entire learning mechanism is, to various degrees, likely biased toward the majority. I don’t know whether this is biological/evolutionary, or if we simply realize early in life that following the majority tends to be right, because that is true in learning language. Probably our brains have evolved a propensity toward learning it, and then we do.

  • Were the dissenting toddlers ‘right’?

  • Makes sense. One thing worries me though. What if toddlers apply this to adults as well? Will a toddler trust their parental figures if they are the dissenters? IE if I teach my child (when I have one someday) that something is right, and a bunch of adults get together to try to teach my child that something is wrong, who will the child believe? I assume the parent is the default, but the possibility that it isn’t worries me.