Publications of Mascaro, Olivier

The pragmatic role of trust in young children’s interpretation of unfamiliar signals

What role does children’s trust in communication play in their acquisition of new meanings? To answer, we report two experimental studies (N = 81) testing how three- to four-year-olds interpret the meaning of a novel communicative device when it is used by a malevolent and potentially deceptive informant. Children participated in a hiding game in which they had to find a reward hidden in one of two boxes. In the initial phase of the experiments, a malevolent informant always indicated the location of the empty box using a novel communicative device, either a marker (Study 1), or an arrow (Study 2). During that phase, 3- and 4-year-olds learned to avoid the box indicated by the novel communicative device. In the second phase of the test, the malevolent informant was replaced by a benevolent one. Nevertheless, children did not change their search strategy, and they kept avoiding the box tagged by the novel communicative device as often as when it had been produced by the malevolent informant. These results suggest that during the initial phase, children (i) did not consider the possibility that the malevolent informant might intend to deceive them, and (ii) did not ignore the unfamiliar communicative signal or treat it as irrelevant. Instead, children relied on the unfamiliar communicative signal to locate the empty box’s location. These results suggest that children’s avoidance of the location indicated by an unfamiliar signal is not unambiguous evidence for distrust of such signal. We argue that children’s trust in ostensive communication is likely to extend to unfamiliar communicative means, and that this presumption of trustworthiness plays a central role in children’s acquisition of new meanings.

Optimistic expectations about communication explain children's difficulties in hiding, lying, and mistrusting liars

We suggest that preschoolers’ frequent obliviousness to the risks and opportunities of deception comes from a trusting stance supporting verbal communication. Three studies (N = 125) confirm this hypothesis. Three-year-olds can hide information from others (Study 1) and they can lie (Study 2) in simple settings. Yet when one introduces the possibility of informing others in the very same settings, three-year-olds tend to be honest (Studies 1 and 2). Similarly, four-year-olds, though capable of treating assertions as false, trust deceptive informants (Study 3). We suggest that children's reduced sensitivity to the opportunities of lying, and to the risks of being lied to might help explain their difficulties on standard false belief tasks.

Epistemology for Beginners: Two- to Five-Year-Old Children's Representation of Falsity

This paper investigates the ontogeny of human’s naive concept of truth. Surprisingly, children find it hard to treat assertions as false before their fifth birthday. Yet, we show in six studies (N = 140) that human’s concept of falsity develops early. Two-year-olds use truth-functional negation to exclude one term in an alternative (Study 1). Three-year-olds can evaluate discrepancies between the content of a representation and what it aims at representing (Study 2). They use this knowledge to treat beliefs and assertions as false (Study 3). Four-year-olds recognise the involutive nature of falsity ascriptions: they properly infer ‘p’ from ‘It is not true that “It is not true that “p””‘ (Study 4), an inference that rests on second-order representations of representations. Controls confirm that children do not merely equate being mistaken with failing to achieve one’s goal (Studies 5 and 6). These results demonstrate remarkable capacities to evaluate representations, and indicate that in the absence of formal training, young children develop the building blocks of a theory of truth and falsity—a naive epistemology. We suggest that children’s difficulties in discarding false assertions need not reflect any conceptual lacuna, and may originate from their being trustful.

Preschoolers are able to take merit into account when distributing goods

Classic studies in developmental psychology demonstrate a relatively late development of equity, with children as old as 6 or even 8 to 10 years failing to follow the logic of merit—that is, giving more to those who contributed more. Following Piaget, these studies have been taken to indicate that judgements of justice develop slowly and follow a stage-like progression starting off with simple rules (e.g., equality: everyone receives the same) and only later on in development evolving into more complex ones (e.g., equity: distributions match contributions). Here, we report two experiments with 3- and 4-year-old children (N = 195) that contradict this constructivist account. Our results demonstrate that children as young as three years old are able to take merit into account by distributing tokens according to individual contributions but that this ability may be hidden by a preference for equality.

{Epistemic Vigilance}

Humans massively depend on communication with others, but this leaves them open to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misinformed. To ensure that, despite this risk, communication remains advantageous, humans have, we claim, a suite of cognitive mechanisms for epistemic vigilance. Here we outline this claim and consider some of the ways in which epistemic vigilance works in mental and social life by surveying issues, research and theories in different domains of philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology and the social sciences.