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Children's Use of Whispering as a Cue for Privileged Information

Thu, March 21, 4:00 to 5:15pm, Baltimore Convention Center, Floor: Level 1, Exhibit Hall B

Integrative Statement

Young children are exceptionally good at learning and sharing conventional information such as object labels and rules (Rakoczy et al., 2009; Csibra and Gergely, 2009). Less well understood is how children distinguish conventional information that is normatively shared versus other, privileged, information, that is not normatively shared. Behrend & Girgis (2015) showed that 5-year-olds but not younger preschoolers successfully distinguished between conventional and privileged information, but we know little about how this distinction is learned and what cues can help children to differentiate these types of information. One candidate for such a cue is whispering, the unique register that is frequently used to privilege information between speaker and listener. The purpose of this study is to test if children are less likely to share whispered information than non-whispered information.

Method: 41 children, 21 younger children (MAge= 4.1 years) and 20 older children (Mage = 6.4 years), participated. Participants watched two videotaped puppet shows featuring two puppets. One was about the location of a hidden object and the other was about a magic word that would open a box. In one show the critical information was whispered (“The car is in the box.”) and in the other it was stated aloud (“The magic word is zimbo.”). At the end of each video the two main puppets went away, and the child was asked by a third, novel, puppet for the relevant information (i.e., the location of the object or the magic word).

Results and Discussion: The percentage of times children provided the privileged information to the third puppet was calculated and analyzed. Analyses showed no main effects for age or condition, but a significant age X condition interaction that showed that the older children (35% of trials) were less likely to share whispered information than younger children (56%, p < .05) though there was no difference between ages in sharing spoken information. Follow-up analyses on responses to the individual videos showed that this pattern was specifically due to older children being less likely to share the object location than the younger children. The findings from this novel study support earlier findings regarding children’s ability to distinguish privileged from conventional information at around five years of age and also provide preliminary support to the hypothesis that whispering might provide a cue to which information is privileged and, hence, not freely shareable. In a current follow-up study, we are examining this phenomenon further using a different methodology (cartoon videos) and comparing children’s judgments about whether or not a character should share information that is spoken, whispered, or labeled as a secret, across three different scenarios.


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