Can Being Scared Cause Tummy Aches? Naive Theories, Ambiguous Evidence, and Preschoolers' Causal Inferences

Laura E. Schulz, Elizabeth Baraff Bonawitz, Thomas L. Griffiths

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

142 Scopus citations


Causal learning requires integrating constraints provided by domain-specific theories with domain-general statistical learning. In order to investigate the interaction between these factors, the authors presented preschoolers with stories pitting their existing theories against statistical evidence. Each child heard 2 stories in which 2 candidate causes co-occurred with an effect. Evidence was presented in the form: AB → E; CA → E; AD → E; and so forth. In 1 story, all variables came from the same domain; in the other, the recurring candidate cause, A, came from a different domain (A was a psychological cause of a biological effect). After receiving this statistical evidence, children were asked to identify the cause of the effect on a new trial. Consistent with the predictions of a Bayesian model, all children were more likely to identify A as the cause within domains than across domains. Whereas 3.5-year-olds learned only from the within-domain evidence, 4- and 5-year-olds learned from the cross-domain evidence and were able to transfer their new expectations about psychosomatic causality to a novel task.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1124-1139
Number of pages16
JournalDevelopmental Psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2007
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


  • Bayesian models
  • ambiguous evidence
  • domain-general and domain-specific causal learning
  • naive theories
  • psychosomatic causes


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