Explaining drives the discovery of real and illusory patterns


Children’s and adults’ attempts to explain the world around them plays a key role in promoting learning and understanding, but little is known about how and why explaining has this effect. An experiment investigated explaining in the social context of learning to predict and explain individuals’ behavior, examining if explaining observations exerts a selective constraint to seek patterns or regularities underlying the observations, regardless of whether such patterns are harmful or helpful for learning. When there were reliable patterns– such as personality types that predict charitable behavior– explaining promoted learning. But when these patterns were misleading, explaining produced an impairment whereby participants exhibited less accurate learning and prediction of individuals’ behavior. This novel approach of contrasting explanation’s positive and negative effects suggests that explanation’s benefits are not merely due to increased motivation, attention or time, and that explaining may undermine learning in domains where regularities are absent, spurious, or unreliable.

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