Humans massively depend on communication with others, but this leaves them open to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misinformed. To ensure that, despite this risk, communication remains advantageous, humans have, we claim, a suite of cognitive mechanisms for epistemic vigilance. Here we outline this claim and consider some of the ways in which epistemic vigilance works in mental and social life by surveying issues, research and theories in different domains of philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology and the social sciences.
Discovering the meaning of novel communicative cues is challenging and amounts to navigating an unbounded hypothesis space. Several theories posit that this problem can be simplified by relying on positive expectations about the cognitive utility of communicated information. These theories imply that learners should assume that novel communicative cues tend to have low processing costs and high cognitive benefits. We tested this hypothesis in three studies in which toddlers (N = 90) searched for a reward hidden in one of several (...) containers. In all studies, an adult communicated the reward's location with an unfamiliar and ambiguous cue. We manipulated the processing costs (operationalized as inferential chain length) and cognitive benefits (operationalized as informativeness) of the possible interpretations of the cues. Toddlers processing of novel communicative cues were guided by expectations of low processing costs (Study 1) and high cognitive benefits (Studies 2 and 3). More specifically, toddlers treated novel cues as if they were easy to process, informative, and accurate, even when provided with repeated evidence to the contrary. These results indicate that, from toddlerhood onward, expectations of cognitive utility shape the processing of novel communicative cues. These data also reveal that toddlers, who are in the process of learning the language and communicative conventions of people around them, exert a pressure favoring cognitive efficiency in communicative systems. (shrink)