Trust and Testimony in Social Learning

Natural pedagogy focuses on knowledge transfer and how such transfer may occur. The theory describes a communicative relationship which is, by definition, an exchange influenced and determined by the principle of epistemic primacy that portrays infants as «avid seekers of information provided by others» (Poulin-Dubois et al. 2010, p. 303). Since the human environment is characterized by informational cooperation and communication, the advantages of using information provided by others are extremely high, but at the same time, the risk of being deceived is too great to be overlooked or underestimated.

In a pedagogical condition, children tend to ‘over-imitate’, i.e., to reproduce an entire sequence of actions more faithfully. The pedagogical communication represents «a form of epistemic cooperation that can transfer relevant episodic information about specific referents as well as generic knowledge about referent kinds» (Gergely 2011, p. 81). In other words, there is a need for knowledge that triggers the search of information expressed by the utilization and recycling of communicative means.

Since Natural pedagogy is based on (epistemic) trust in others, I suggest to treat information transmitted pedagogically as testimony, for the reasons that Harris and Lane (2014, 444) nicely summarise in the following passage on the conditions of children’s learning in the context of properly occurring testimony: «children’s learning from the testimony of other people will typically occur when two conditions are fulfilled: (i) the entity or phenomenon is difficult for children to observe autonomously or is ambiguous so that, in the absence of definitive perceptual input, they are receptive to the testimony of other people; (ii) children can nonetheless imagine – mentally represent – the state of affairs that is described via the testimony» (Harris – Lane 2014, 444).

Trust is not the mere output of a gullible attitude, but rather the result of interpersonal relations, and at least of a communicative one. Epistemic authority and trust are deeply connected (Origgi 2004). One of the challenges for the ongoing cognitive-developmental studies is to determine the maximum and minimum thresholds of trust. Trusting someone involves the conscious and unconscious commitment of an evaluative first-person subject. Following Gergely’s suggestion about the gradual inhibition of epistemic trust in favor of more significant refinement of mindreading competences, the increase of epistemic vigilance (Sperber et al. 2010) may be due to a more sophisticated monitoring process, one that is focused on both the honesty of the attester and her alleged competences. From a certain developmental phase onward, we may claim that individuals form testimonial beliefs using a monitoring process that involves (unconscious) cognitive activities to determine sincerity and competence.

From an epistemology-of-testimony perspective, I emphasize the fact that infants are dependent on and spontaneously look for reliable sources of information and, for this purpose, they are equipped with some sort of selective vigilance both toward the informants and the contents of the message. I maintain that the boundaries of application and the efficacy of the natural pedagogy account are more evident if they are examined in this light. Simultaneously, it will be easier to define the limits of natural pedagogy’s work throughout development. When children become sufficiently able to assess the reliability of an informant and the trustworthiness of a message in virtue of their inferential capacities and quite robust baggage of beliefs, then natural pedagogy will be inhibited from triggering its characteristic biases and thus will cease to operate.

Natural pedagogy predicts that the ostensive nature of communicative transmission would make any need for further scrutiny superfluous, thereby allowing for faster and more efficient learning. However, children’s trust in the attester should not be taken for granted, but it is rather a result deeply affected by a dynamic and conflicting balance between the child’s inclination to trust blindly, induced by the teacher’s communicative approach, and the increasing reasoning competence together with the ability to read other people’s intention and mental states.

We can definitely characterize natural pedagogy as a temporary developmental form of cross-generational transmission of testimony, where testimony represents – psychologically speaking – «a source of basic beliefs» (Audi 2015, 230). Therefore, the natural pedagogy system allows children to form a stable cluster of culturally shared beliefs.

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