Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 24, Issue 5, pp 1538–1547 | Cite as

Effects of explaining on children's preference for simpler hypotheses

  • Caren M. Walker
  • Elizabeth Bonawitz
  • Tania Lombrozo
Brief Report


Research suggests that the process of explaining influences causal reasoning by prompting learners to favor hypotheses that offer “good” explanations. One feature of a good explanation is its simplicity. Here, we investigate whether prompting children to generate explanations for observed effects increases the extent to which they favor causal hypotheses that offer simpler explanations, and whether this changes over the course of development. Children aged 4, 5, and 6 years observed several outcomes that could be explained by appeal to a common cause (the simple hypothesis) or two independent causes (the complex hypothesis). We varied whether children were prompted to explain each observation or, in a control condition, to report it. Children were then asked to make additional inferences for which the competing hypotheses generated different predictions. The results revealed developmental differences in the extent to which children favored simpler hypotheses as a basis for further inference in this task: 4-year-olds did not favor the simpler hypothesis in either condition; 5-year-olds favored the simpler hypothesis only when prompted to explain; and 6-year-olds favored the simpler hypothesis whether or not they explained.


Explanation Cognitive development Simplicity Causal inference 



Research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation (grant DRL-1056712) and a James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award in Understanding Human Cognition to T. Lombrozo and the American Psychological Foundation (Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz) to C. Walker. The authors thank the parents and children who participated in this study, as well as the University of California, Berkeley Early Childhood Education Centers, the Lawrence Hall of Science, and The Childhood Creativity Center at the Bay Area Discovery Museum. We are grateful to Brian Edwards for his contribution in developing these methods. Finally, we thank Shin Er Teh, Avenee Nulkar, Christine Rickansrud, Sarah Tencher, and especially Rotem Aboody for their assistance with data collection.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Caren M. Walker
    • 1
  • Elizabeth Bonawitz
    • 2
  • Tania Lombrozo
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyRutgers University – NewarkNewarkUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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