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Children balance theories and evidence in exploration, explanation, and learning

Cognitive Psychology
DOI: 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2011.12.002
  • Beliefs
  • Evidence
  • Play
  • Explanation
  • Learning
  • Mathematics


Abstract We look at the effect of evidence and prior beliefs on exploration, explanation and learning. In Experiment 1, we tested children both with and without differential prior beliefs about balance relationships (Center Theorists, mean: 82months; Mass Theorists, mean: 89months; No Theory children, mean: 62months). Center and Mass Theory children who observed identical evidence explored the block differently depending on their beliefs. When the block was balanced at its geometric center (belief-violating to a Mass Theorist, but belief-consistent to a Center Theorist), Mass Theory children explored the block more, and Center Theory children showed the standard novelty preference; when the block was balanced at the center of mass, the pattern of results reversed. The No Theory children showed a novelty preference regardless of evidence. In Experiments 2 and 3, we follow-up on these findings, showing that both Mass and Center Theorists selectively and differentially appeal to auxiliary variables (e.g., a magnet) to explain evidence only when their beliefs are violated. We also show that children use the data to revise their predictions in the absence of the explanatory auxiliary variable but not in its presence. Taken together, these results suggest that children’s learning is at once conservative and flexible; children integrate evidence, prior beliefs, and competing causal hypotheses in their exploration, explanation, and learning.

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