Intuitive experimentation in the physical world

Neil R. Bramley, Tobias Gerstenberg, Joshua B. Tenenbaum, Todd M. Gureckis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many aspects of our physical environment are hidden. For example, it is hard to estimate how heavy an object is from visual observation alone. In this paper we examine how people actively “experiment” within the physical world to discover such latent properties. In the first part of the paper, we develop a novel framework for the quantitative analysis of the information produced by physical interactions. We then describe two experiments that present participants with moving objects in “microworlds” that operate according to continuous spatiotemporal dynamics similar to everyday physics (i.e., forces of gravity, friction, etc.). Participants were asked to interact with objects in the microworlds in order to identify their masses, or the forces of attraction/repulsion that governed their movement. Using our modeling framework, we find that learners who freely interacted with the physical system selectively produced evidence that revealed the physical property consistent with their inquiry goal. As a result, their inferences were more accurate than for passive observers and, in some contexts, for yoked participants who watched video replays of an active learner's interactions. We characterize active learners’ actions into a range of micro-experiment strategies and discuss how these might be learned or generalized from past experience. The technical contribution of this work is the development of a novel analytic framework and methodology for the study of interactively learning about the physical world. Its empirical contribution is the demonstration of sophisticated goal directed human active learning in a naturalistic context.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9-38
Number of pages30
JournalCognitive Psychology
StatePublished - Sep 2018


  • Active learning
  • Experimental design
  • Mental simulation
  • Physical understanding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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