Observing child-led exploration improves parents’ causal inferences

AbstractDo children’s flexible causal inferences promote more creative causal discovery for observing adults? Inspired by a task in which children are more likely to consider unconventional causal forms (Lucas, Bridgers, Griffiths, & Gopnik, 2014; Wente et al., 2017), we designed a new method in which child-adult pairs work together to solve a causal task and assessed the relative influence of each member of the pair on the other’s causal inference. Consistent with previous research, children were better than parents at learning the unusual conjunctive relationship, suggesting that children make more flexible causal inferences than adults. Our research also revealed a surprising and new result – that observing a child explore broadly helped parents to be more flexible and open-minded in their causal learning. In contrast, a child observing an adult’s exploratory interventions had no negative consequence on the child’s ability to infer the correct relation. Follow-up experiments explored the degree to which this child-led bootstrapping for adults was due to the particular exploratory evidence generated by the child during play, or merely the presence of a child. Results suggest that both factors may play a role in shaping adult’s causal inferences.

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