Children's causal inferences from indirect evidence: Backwards blocking and Bayesian reasoning in preschoolers

Cognitive Science 28 (3):303-333 (2004)

Abstract

Previous research suggests that children can infer causal relations from patterns of events. However, what appear to be cases of causal inference may simply reduce to children recognizing relevant associations among events, and responding based on those associations. To examine this claim, in Experiments 1 and 2, children were introduced to a “blicket detector”, a machine that lit up and played music when certain objects were placed upon it. Children observed patterns of contingency between objects and the machine’s activation that required them to use indirect evidence to make causal inferences. Critically, associative models either made no predictions, or made incorrect predictions about these inferences. In general, children were able to make these inferences, but some developmental differences between 3- and 4- year-olds were found. We suggest that children’s causal inferences are not based on recognizing associations, but rather that children develop a mechanism for Bayesian structure learning. Experiment 3 explicitly tests a prediction of this account. Children were asked to make an inference about ambiguous data based on the base-rate of certain events occurring. Fouryear-olds, but not 3-year-olds were able to make this inference.

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Author's Profile

Alison Gopnik
University of California, Berkeley