When children are better (or at least more open-minded) learners than adults: Developmental differences in learning the forms of causal relationships

Christopher G. Lucas, Sophie Bridgers, Thomas L. Griffiths, Alison Gopnik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

53 Scopus citations

Abstract

Children learn causal relationships quickly and make far-reaching causal inferences from what they observe. Acquiring abstract causal principles that allow generalization across different causal relationships could support these abilities. We examine children's ability to acquire abstract knowledge about the forms of causal relationships and show that in some cases they learn better than adults. Adults and 4- and 5-year-old children saw events suggesting that a causal relationship took one of two different forms, and their generalization to a new set of objects was then tested. One form was a more typical disjunctive relationship; the other was a more unusual conjunctive relationship. Participants were asked to both judge the causal efficacy of the objects and to design actions to generate or prevent an effect. Our results show that children can learn the abstract properties of causal relationships using only a handful of events. Moreover, children were more likely than adults to generalize the unusual conjunctive relationship, suggesting that they are less biased by prior assumptions and pay more attention to current evidence. These results are consistent with the predictions of a hierarchical Bayesian model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)284-299
Number of pages16
JournalCognition
Volume131
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - May 1 2014
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

Keywords

  • Bayesian models
  • Causality
  • Cognitive development

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