Reasoning about knowledge: Children's evaluations of generality and verifiability

Melissa A. Koenig, Caitlin A. Cole, Meredith Meyer, Katherine E. Ridge, Tamar Kushnir, Susan A. Gelman

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In a series of experiments, we examined 3- to 8-year-old children's (. N=. 223) and adults' (. N=. 32) use of two properties of testimony to estimate a speaker's knowledge: generality and verifiability. Participants were presented with a "Generic speaker" who made a series of 4 general claims about "pangolins" (a novel animal kind), and a "Specific speaker" who made a series of 4 specific claims about "this pangolin" as an individual. To investigate the role of verifiability, we systematically varied whether the claim referred to a perceptually-obvious feature visible in a picture (e.g., "has a pointy nose") or a non-evident feature that was not visible (e.g., "sleeps in a hollow tree"). Three main findings emerged: (1) young children showed a pronounced reliance on verifiability that decreased with age. Three-year-old children were especially prone to credit knowledge to speakers who made verifiable claims, whereas 7- to 8-year-olds and adults credited knowledge to generic speakers regardless of whether the claims were verifiable; (2) children's attributions of knowledge to generic speakers was not detectable until age 5, and only when those claims were also verifiable; (3) children often generalized speakers' knowledge outside of the pangolin domain, indicating a belief that a person's knowledge about pangolins likely extends to new facts. Findings indicate that young children may be inclined to doubt speakers who make claims they cannot verify themselves, as well as a developmentally increasing appreciation for speakers who make general claims.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)22-39
Number of pages18
JournalCognitive Psychology
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Tali Levin, Caroline Hendrickson, Megan Bausman and Sashank Cherukuri for help with data collection and scoring, and are grateful to all participating families and children. Collection of the children’s data was supported by the National Science Foundation (grant 656007 ) to M. Koenig and collection of the adults’ data by NICHD (grant HD-36043 ) to S. Gelman.


  • Cognitive development
  • Metacognition
  • Testimonial learning


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