Young children’s learning and generalization of teleological and mechanistic explanations

Tania Lombrozo, Elizabeth Baraff Bonawitz, Nicole R. Scalise

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Young children often endorse explanations of the natural world that appeal to functions or purpose—for example, that rocks are pointy so animals can scratch on them. By contrast, most Western-educated adults reject such explanations. What accounts for this change? We investigated 4- to 5-year-old children’s ability to generalize the form of an explanation from examples by presenting them with novel teleological explanations, novel mechanistic explanations, or no explanations for 5 nonliving natural objects. We then asked children to explain novel instances of the same objects and novel kinds of objects. We found that children were able to learn and generalize explanations of both types, suggesting an ability to draw generalizations over the form of an explanation. We also found that teleological and mechanistic explanations were learned and generalized equally well, suggesting that if a domain-general teleological bias exists, it does not manifest as a bias in learning or generalization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)220-232
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Cognition and Development
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 15 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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