Causal Information-Seeking Strategies Change Across Childhood and Adolescence

Kate Nussenbaum, Alexandra O. Cohen, Zachary J. Davis, David J. Halpern, Todd M. Gureckis, Catherine A. Hartley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Intervening on causal systems can illuminate their underlying structures. Past work has shown that, relative to adults, young children often make intervention decisions that appear to confirm a single hypothesis rather than those that optimally discriminate alternative hypotheses. Here, we investigated how the ability to make informative causal interventions changes across development. Ninety participants between the ages of 7 and 25 completed 40 different puzzles in which they had to intervene on various causal systems to determine their underlying structures. Each puzzle comprised a three- or four-node computer chip with hidden wires. On each trial, participants viewed two possible arrangements of the chip's hidden wires and had to select a single node to activate. After observing the outcome of their intervention, participants selected a wire configuration and rated their confidence in their selection. We characterized participant choices with a Bayesian measurement model that indexed the extent to which participants selected nodes that would best disambiguate the two possible causal structures versus those that had high causal centrality in one of the two causal hypotheses but did not necessarily discriminate between them. Our model estimates revealed that the use of a discriminatory strategy increased through early adolescence. Further, developmental improvements in intervention strategy were related to changes in the ability to accurately judge the strength of evidence that interventions revealed, as indexed by participants' confidence in their selections. Our results suggest that improvements in causal information-seeking extend into adolescence and may be driven by metacognitive sensitivity to the efficacy of previous interventions in discriminating competing ideas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12888
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • Adolescence
  • Bayesian modeling
  • Causal interventions
  • Causal learning
  • Cognitive development
  • Decision-making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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