Occam's rattle: Children's use of simplicity and probability to constrain inference

Elizabeth Baraff Bonawitz, Tania Lombrozo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


A growing literature suggests that generating and evaluating explanations is a key mechanism for learning and inference, but little is known about how children generate and select competing explanations. This study investigates whether young children prefer explanations that are simple, where simplicity is quantified as the number of causes invoked in an explanation, and how this preference is reconciled with probability information. Both preschool-aged children and adults were asked to explain an event that could be generated by 1 or 2 causes, where the probabilities of the causes varied across conditions. In 2 experiments, it was found that children preferred explanations involving 1 cause over 2 but were also sensitive to the probability of competing explanations. Adults, in contrast, responded on the basis of probability alone. These data suggest that children employ a principle of parsimony like Occam's razor as an inductive constraint and that this constraint is employed when more reliable bases for inference are unavailable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1156-1164
Number of pages9
JournalDevelopmental Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


  • Causal reasoning
  • Explanation
  • Inference to the best explanation
  • Parsimony
  • Simplicity


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