Little Bayesians or little Einsteins? Probability and explanatory virtue in children's inferences

Angie M. Johnston, Samuel G B Johnson, Marissa L. Koven, Frank C. Keil

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (SciVal)


Like scientists, children seek ways to explain causal systems in the world. But are children scientists in the strict Bayesian tradition of maximizing posterior probability? Or do they attend to other explanatory considerations, as laypeople and scientists - such as Einstein - do? Four experiments support the latter possibility. In particular, we demonstrate in four experiments that 4- to 8-year-old children, like adults, have a robust latent scope bias that leads to inferences that do not maximize posterior probability. When faced with two explanations equally consistent with observed data, where one explanation makes an unverified prediction, children consistently preferred the explanation that does not make this prediction (Experiment 1), even if the prior probabilities are identical (Experiment 3). Additional evidence suggests that this latent scope bias may result from the same explanatory strategies used by adults (Experiments 1 and 2), and can be attenuated by strong prior odds (Experiment 4). We argue that children, like adults, rely on 'explanatory virtues' in inference - a strategy that often leads to normative responses, but can also lead to systematic error.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere21483
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number6
Early online date17 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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