Researchers Easily Able to Mislead Preschoolers Using Pointing Gesture

Posted on February 29, 2012

Researchers at the University of Virginia found they were able to easily mislead preschoolers by using a pointing gesture. Young children believe very strongly that a pointing adult is sharing knowledge with them. In the study, the researchers showed 48 preschoolers (half boys and half girls) a videotape of two women, four cups, and a ball.

In each of four sequences one woman said she was going to hide the ball under one of the cups. The other woman covered her eyes and faced the wall so she could not see which cup the ball was being hidden under. The woman hiding the ball placed a barrier in front of the cups, so the preschoolers could see she was hiding the ball, but could not see which cup she hid it under. After the ball was hidden, the barrier was removed and the other woman turned around.

Then, each sequence took one of three forms. In the baseline condition, both women sat with their hands in their laps. In another condition, each grasped a different cup. And in another, each pointed at a different cup. The children were asked, "Which woman knows where the ball is?"

When both women grasped the cup or when neither touched a cup, the children gave the correct answer about three times out of four. When both women pointed, however, the children chose the right person only about half the time - statistically, by chance.

To make sure the preschoolers hadn't ignored the question and inferred they were being asked which cup they would look under, the experimenters showed eight other children the pointing sequences and asked, "Which woman hid the ball?" In this case, the children got it right three out of four times. This indicates that the first group knew who hid the ball, but some of them assumed the other woman must also have had some intelligence about the ball's whereabouts because she was pointing.

Carolyn Palmquist at the University of Virginia says, "Children were willing to attribute knowledge to a person solely based on the gesture they used to convey the information. They have built up such a strong belief in the knowledge that comes along with pointing that it trumps everything else, including what they see with their eyes."

The study by Carolyn Palmquist and Vikram K. Jaswal was published in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.