This appreciation of uncertainty may run deep, according to studies summarized by the developmental psychologists Tamar Kushnir, David Sobel and Mark Sabbagh, writing for the nonprofit research website The Conversation. You might think that children would be especially likely to trust an authoritative, confident voice. Initially, they do. But even preschoolers understand uncertainty, and they turn out to trust someone who admits ignorance more than someone who is confident but wrong.
In these studies, researchers present 4-year-olds with people who express certainty or uncertainty about everyday facts. For instance, in one study, two people see a book; one confidently says it is called a telephone, while the other admits to not knowing what it is called. Then the two people make other claims about a range of new facts, such as what a new toy might be called or how it might be used, or where a hidden object could be found. The children are willing to believe the honest but uncertain person, but they don’t trust the confident but inaccurate one. As the old saw goes, “The problem isn’t the things you don’t know but the things you do know that ain’t so.” Even small children seem to agree.