Changes in cognitive flexibility and hypothesis search across human life history from childhood to adolescence to adulthood

Alison Gopnik, Shaun O’Grady, Christopher G. Lucas, Thomas L. Griffiths, Adrienne Wente, Sophie Bridgers, Rosie Aboody, Hoki Fung, Ronald E. Dahl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

183 Scopus citations


How was the evolution of our unique biological life history related to distinctive human developments in cognition and culture? We suggest that the extended human childhood and adolescence allows a balance between exploration and exploitation, between wider and narrower hypothesis search, and between innovation and imitation in cultural learning. In particular, different developmental periods may be associated with different learning strategies. This relation between biology and culture was probably coevolutionary and bidirectional: life-history changes allowed changes in learning, which in turn both allowed and rewarded extended life histories. In two studies, we test how easily people learn an unusual physical or social causal relation from a pattern of evidence. We track the development of this ability from early childhood through adolescence and adulthood. In the physical domain, preschoolers, counterintuitively, perform better than school-aged children, who in turn perform better than adolescents and adults. As they grow older learners are less flexible: they are less likely to adopt an initially unfamiliar hypothesis that is consistent with new evidence. Instead, learners prefer a familiar hypothesis that is less consistent with the evidence. In the social domain, both preschoolers and adolescents are actually the most flexible learners, adopting an unusual hypothesis more easily than either 6-y-olds or adults. There may be important developmental transitions in flexibility at the entry into middle childhood and in adolescence, which differ across domains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7892-7899
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number30
StatePublished - Jul 25 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Adolescence
  • Causal reasoning
  • Cognitive development
  • Life history
  • Social cognition


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