Every year, about 350 children in the United States, 10 in Canada, and 19 in UK are abducted by strangers. The number is even higher in countries such as Mexico (about 4000) and China (about 70,000), where children often roam unsupervised in their neighborhood. Although maybe you could argue that proportional to their populations, these numbers appear relatively small, any parent would agree that even one is one too many.

About 15 years ago, my son was 3 and was old enough to play on the sidewalk and in neighborhood parks semi-unsupervised. I started to wonder whether he could be easily lured away by a stranger with some false proposition (like the promise of puppies and candy).

As a scientist, my natural inclination was to search the existing literature for evidence. To my relief, the empirical evidence was very reassuring. There were many lab studies on children’s ability to distrust strangers.

They showed that infants before their first birthday are already able to determine whom to trust based on their past behaviors and informational accuracy. At 3 years, this so-called “selective trust” ability is highly sophisticated: children are more reluctant to learn from strangers who have provided inaccurate information than strangers who have been accurate. By 6 years, this ability reaches such a high level that few researchers would study children beyond this age—their selective trust seemed so obvious.

Imagine the shock I experienced when I saw a TV program (ABC News Prime Time Live https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3WhkxbPTAI) that staged common child abduction scenarios. Without fail, all children, including teenagers, walked away with a stranger!

Clearly, the existing lab evidence did not square well with the real-life demonstrations.

I raised this issue with my students in one of our regular Friday afternoon lab meetings. Everyone agreed this was a research-worthy topic. Within an hour, we designed a field study modeled after the TV program’s scenarios and the common selective trust paradigms on which the lab findings were based.

However, after the initial excitement waned, ethical concerns arose. We all agreed that no university ethics committee would ever approve a field study like this and decided to not pursue it any further.

Fast forward to 2018: Chris Li, my postdoctoral student at that lab meeting involved with the field study design, called me. He was now a professor at Zhejiang Normal University, China. He was invited by a kindergarten to help assess the effectiveness of a new curriculum, aimed at making children more wary of strangers on the street. He believed that given this practical need, we could resurrect our old design.

After careful deliberation, I agreed. By that time, we had discovered that for decades, many researchers in the field of social work had done similar work to test children’s ability to resist abduction. We felt that our field study could be done ethically and safely, provided that we followed the similar field study protocols that had been developed in the United States and elsewhere for the exact same purposes.

In any event, with the university ethics committee’s approval, we collected data from children between 3 and 6 years of age. The study took place on the playground of the children’s kindergarten.

First, a researcher with whom children were familiar took them individually to the kindergarten’s playground to read a book and play a game. Then, she told the children that she had to step away briefly and told them to stay where they were and not to go anywhere with a stranger. At this point, the children were alone by themselves in the playground.

During her absence, another researcher—whom the children had never met—appeared. The stranger first claimed to know their mother and homeroom teacher by naming them either correctly or incorrectly. Thus, children were randomly assigned to either a condition where the stranger gave correct names or a condition where the stranger gave wrong names. Then, the stranger said, “You are so adorable. I really like you. I have a gift that I want to give to you! Let’s go together and get it, and I will bring you back here after a while.”

We also manipulated the stranger’s gender. The stranger was female in one experiment and male in another.  

Inconsistent with previous lab findings, informational accuracy did not affect whether children would be lured away by a male stranger. Rather, they seemed to follow the “male strangers = danger” heuristic and were more inclined to refuse his proposition to walk away with him. [Note that the likely reason that the lab studies failed to find a similar effect was that the research assistants in previous studies were almost exclusively women!]

However, partially consistent with the lab findings, when the stranger was female, only 5- and 6-year-olds were less likely to be lured away by her when she provided inaccurate information.

Nevertheless, what was greatly concerning was that nearly 50% of the older children and 76% of the younger ones walked away with the stranger, regardless of experimental manipulations.

This study has taught me many lessons. Chief among them is that children in the real world do not behave like the children depicted in developmental psychology studies. The latter seem to be more advanced, capable, and sophisticated than the former. One reason for such a rosy picture portrayed by the lab-study data is that such studies are done in well controlled conditions, which at best reveal how children will perform in an idealized situation that is unlikely to exist in the real world. To ensure our lab findings are of any practical value in the real world, we must conduct field studies, which unfortunately are rarely done.

For Further Reading

Li, Q., Heyman, G., Compton, B., & Lee, K. (2020). Susceptibility to being lured away by a stranger: A real-world field test of selective trust in early childhood. Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620966526.

Kang Lee is a professor at the University of Toronto who studies the development of social behavior in childhood such as trust, lying, and cheating.