Seeking Ideal Explanations in a Non-Ideal World

AbstractResearch has found that when children or adults attempt to explain novel observations in the course of learning, they are more likely to discover patterns that support ideal explanations: explanations that are maximally simple and broad. However, not all learning contexts support such explanations. Can explaining facilitate discovery nonetheless? We present a study in which participants were tasked with discovering a rule governing the classification of items, where the items were consistent two non-ideal rules: one correctly classified 66% of cases, the other 83%. We find that when there is no ideal rule to be discovered (i.e., no 100% rule), participants prompted to explain are better than control participants at discovering the best available rule (i.e., the 83% rule). This supports the idea that seeking ideal explanations can be beneficial in a non-ideal world because the pursuit of an ideal explanation can facilitate the discovery of imperfect patterns along the way.

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