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“Astronauts go to space”: Children use explanations to infer listener knowledge

Imagine meeting a friend for dinner, and you are joined by a mutual friend (Sam) that you’re just meeting for the first time. You mention that you recently saw a Scorsese movie, and your friend turns to Sam and says “Martin Scorsese is a director who did The Departed and a bunch of other films.” Before Sam has even spoken, you’re able to make a guess about their underlying knowledge—namely, that Sam is likely unfamiliar with Scorsese. Recent research in the DIBS lab explores this ability and its development in early childhood.

Even young children understand that you should talk differently depending on what the other person knows, but do they understand the opposite—that the way someone is spoken to may indicate their knowledge? To address this question, children ages 4 to 9 years old were shown a story about show-and-tell where one child (the speaker) talked to two classmates (the listeners) about some familiar toys (e.g., an astronaut). The speaker gave one classmate a very general explanation (e.g. “This is an astronaut. Astronauts get to go to space”) that implies low knowledge, and gave the other a specific description (e.g. “This is a cute astronaut. I like playing Space with this astronaut”) that implies relatively more knowledge.

​Children were then asked “Which person has never seen a toy like this before?”. Our data demonstrate that children by age 6 assume someone may be less knowledgeable if they were told a very general description. This work demonstrates a novel way in which children use conversational cues to learn about other people in conversation. What someone says can indicate a lot about what they know, but our results reveal that it can also tell you about what the listener might know. Ongoing work in the lab probes the complexity and nuances of this developing skill.


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