Angie M. Johnston

Current Research

Learning information from others allows people to quickly and efficiently gain information that would otherwise be very difficult, or impossible, to acquire on their own. However, there are risks inherent to using others as sources of information, since information provided by others has the potential to be inaccurate, misleading, or even deceptive. The central goal of my research program is to discover how we evaluate this information and determine who to trust. Below, I briefly summarize the different perspectives I take in exploring this question.

Evaluating Sources of Information

When evaluating information from others, it is crucial to take into account both the source of the information (e.g., whether the person is reliable) and the quality of the information presented (e.g., whether information is relevant, generalizable, etc.). In my first line of research, done in collaboration with Candice Mills and Asheley Landrum, I examine how young children evaluate sources based on their characteristics. To explore this question, we presented preschool children with conflicting sources of information that differed in competence (i.e., reliability, expertise, intelligence) and benevolence (i.e., niceness and meanness). We discovered that children often struggle to evaluate competence, even when the incompetent source has a history of inaccuracy or lacks expertise. Rather than saying that a competent, mean source is knowledgeable, children will attribute more knowledge to an incompetent, nice source. This tendency to misattribute competence to the nice source is somewhat alarming. At best, niceness is an uninformative characteristic for determining competence, but at worst it can be a carefully crafted act of manipulation. In ongoing work, I am focusing on discovering ways to encourage children to look beyond these façades of niceness and focus on competence.

Evaluating Information Directly

I also investigate how children evaluate information in the absence of competing source characteristics. This line of work explores how children use characteristics of information (e.g., accuracy, generality, relevance) to determine which information is best. Although children struggle to detect inaccuracies when a source is nice, I have discovered that they are surprisingly adept at evaluating information in the absence of these source characteristics. In collaboration with Frank Keil, Sam Johnson, and Mark Sheskin, I presented children from preschool to middle school with conflicting information and asked them to determine which information was best based on their background knowledge, inferences, and observations. Across several studies, we have found that even preschoolers are sensitive to whether information is true, and by elementary school children appreciate that information is more helpful when it is relevant and broadly applicable. These findings highlight several strengths in children’s evaluations, which have the potential to offer a strong foundation for future interventions encouraging children to focus on competence, rather than niceness.

Source Evaluation in Dogs

Dogs are a particularly useful comparison species for exploring the evolutionary origins of our capacity to evaluate others. In collaboration with Laurie Santos, I investigate whether dogs’ sensitivity to social cues leads them to uncritically accept information in the same way as human children. To do this, I recruit dogs from the local community to visit our lab on campus and compare their performance to that of one of their recent evolutionary relatives – wild dingoes – at a sanctuary in Australia. In a typical study, I present dogs and dingoes with information about how to solve a puzzle that is somewhat misleading, and investigate how they use this information. Across several studies, I have discovered that dogs and dingoes often filter out this misleading information and engage their own problem-solving skills. These findings help pinpoint which aspects of human learning are unique. Although dogs are sensitive to many of the same social cues as human children, they do not uncritically accept information from humans if it is misleading.

Science Journalism: A Case Study in Source Evaluation

My final line of research investigates the practical implications of how we evaluate information in adulthood. Though some of my research with adults has uncovered strengths in the criteria adults use to evaluate information, it has also uncovered several weaknesses, particularly in how adults evaluate information from the media. Much of the information we receive is filtered through the media, and one approach that journalists often take is to provide conflicting viewpoints with balanced coverage. Although this is done to ensure unbiased reporting, some of my recent work with Dan Kahan, Frank Keil, Mark Sheskin, and Mariel Goddu suggests that balanced coverage can leave the public with a misleading view of an issue. Instead of focusing on how many experts endorse each side of an issue, people tend to pay attention to the amount of coverage each side receives. In ongoing work, I investigate potential ways to eliminate this balanced coverage effect by providing a context that clarifies how many experts support each viewpoint.