Researcher in Profile: Taylor Holubar on Children’s Understanding of Facts and Opinions

By Chia-wa Yeh, Head Teacher and Research Coordinator

In the course of his research, Taylor Holubar has played games with hundreds of children at Bing Nursery School. From these games, which were also research studies, the Stanford graduate student in developmental psychology is exploring how children learn from and about other people, a topic that has long interested him.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, Holubar wanted to experience living on the East Coast. He attended Swarthmore College, outside of Philadelphia, where he was in the honors program, majoring in psychology and minoring in political science. Now in his fifth year of graduate school at Stanford, he continues a family tradition of study at the university. Family members who attended Stanford include his paternal grandparents, an uncle and his parents (both received a master’s in education).

Over the past two years, Holubar and his advisor, Ellen Markman, PhD, professor in psychology, have studied how children and adults respond to opinions they don’t share and whether the way those opinions are expressed changes their responses.

Their work applies the idea of “naïve realism,” which was developed by Stanford psychology professor Lee Ross, PhD, and his colleagues. It’s the belief that “I see the world as it really is and others will agree with me to the extent that they’re informed and sincere.” Disparities in perceptions can result in conflicts, large and small, on personal and societal levels.

The researchers are interested in how young children understand facts and opinions. In particular, they wondered if the way adults express opinions influences preschoolers’ reasoning. For example, opinion statements frequently look factual—“Chocolate is delicious” or “That’s the best movie of the year.” So when adults talk about preferences as if they were facts, does it make it harder for preschoolers to recognize the subjectivity of opinions?

To gather their data, Holubar engaged children in discussions of something that children are very familiar with and for which they have their own preferences: food. He and his research assistants presented 3- to 5-year-olds with pictures of children and introduced these characters as “friends who go to another preschool.” Each character was asked either a fact question or an opinion question about a different food. Half of the characters responded with a conventional response (e.g., “I like ice cream”) or a true response (e.g., “Milk is white”). The other half responded with an unconventional response (e.g., “I don’t like ice cream”) or false response (e.g., “Milk is green”). Some responses were expressed using “like” (“I like ice cream”) while some were presented as facts (“Ice cream is delicious”). Then the researchers asked the children why the character might have said that, and whether the character made a mistake or was just being silly. These questions allowed the researchers to see whether children believed only one response to a question could be correct, or whether multiple points of view are acceptable.

The results show that 3- to 5-year-olds virtually always say an unconventional opinion like “Ice cream is yucky” is mistaken, and adults often do too. Interestingly, older preschoolers and adults are more accepting of opinions if they’re “marked” as opinions using language like “I don’t like ice cream” instead of sounding factual. Younger preschoolers, though, aren’t affected by how the opinion is expressed.

Holubar and Markman thought this might have to do with the fact that the opinion “I don’t like ice cream” sounds like a generic statement, true of ice cream in general, across time and situations. So they tried a second way of “marking” opinions, by saying that a character did or didn’t want conventionally attractive foods like ice cream. Much to their surprise, they found that this was no more helpful than the “I don’t like” language: Again, older preschoolers accepted the unconventional opinion about half the time, and younger preschoolers rejected the unconventional opinion almost all the time.

Often, the children’s explanations for others’ unconventional opinions are very reasonable even when they also say those opinions are mistaken. For example, one child explained that a character didn’t like ice cream “because it has too much sugar.” Another frequent response was that the character hadn’t tasted ice cream before and so presumably didn’t know how delicious it is. One child reasoned that a character said “Milk is green” (a false statement) because “Algae is green, and water is a liquid, and maybe there’s algae water in the milk he drank.”

It’s a bit surprising to the researchers that children who came up with explanations like these are nearly unanimous in saying unconventional opinions are mistakes or silly. The researchers wondered to what extent their findings are driven by the specific questions they asked—for example, maybe these children don’t really understand what they mean by a “mistake.” This is a possibility, but when they ask adults these questions, it turns out adults are also more likely to call unconventional opinions “mistakes.” Presumably adults know what “mistake” means, so the phenomenon isn’t just due to preschoolers’ (mis)understanding of the questions.

Holubar and Markman are following up this work with a modification of a classic study. In this work, children are asked to predict how characters will behave or feel after they find a desired or an undesired food. The researchers hope that this approach will offer a new perspective into preschoolers’ understanding of opinions. In this game, some characters have conventional food preferences (e.g., cookies) and others unconventional (e.g., lemons). These characters then go in the kitchen, represented by a photo as well, to look for some food for a snack. Some find their preferred food while others find something different. Researchers then ask the children how the characters felt when they found the food and whether the characters would keep on looking. The results will give the researchers a glimpse into children’s ability to take others’ perspectives when they differ from their own. The researchers are still collecting data for this project.

Part of the researchers’ argument is that the tendency to treat opinions as if they were facts (i.e., as true or false, with an objectively correct answer) is a basic part of human cognition. “I suspect that part of children’s developmental task with regard to reasoning about opinions is gaining practice with recognizing that people think, feel, act and live in different ways. Inhibiting the impulse to assume one’s own way is the right way is hard for all of us!” said Holubar. He believes unconventional opinions are an opportunity for parents and teachers to highlight how different people see and interact with the world differently. For example, acknowledging that children may like the same or different fruits at snack time can broaden children’s perspectives. Comparing and contrasting what different people like or don’t like—and validating those differences—Holubar suggested, supports children’s development as empathetic, understanding individuals.