Children’s failure to control variables may reflect adaptive decision-making

Neil R. Bramley, Angela Jones, Todd M. Gureckis, Azzurra Ruggeri

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Changing one variable at a time while controlling others is a key aspect of scientific experimentation and a central component of STEM curricula. However, children reportedly struggle to learn and implement this strategy. Why do children’s intuitions about how best to intervene on a causal system conflict with scientific practices? Mathematical analyses have shown that controlling variables is not always the most efficient learning strategy, and that its effectiveness depends on the “causal sparsity” of the problem, i.e., how many variables are likely to impact the outcome. We tested the degree to which 7- to 13-year-old children (n = 104) adapt their learning strategies based on expectations about causal sparsity. We report new evidence demonstrating that some previous work may have undersold children’s causal learning skills: Children can perform and interpret controlled experiments, are sensitive to causal sparsity, and use this information to tailor their testing strategies, demonstrating adaptive decision-making.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2314-2324
Number of pages11
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • CVS
  • Causal learning
  • Causal sparsity
  • Interventions
  • Scientific reasoning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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