Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 24, Issue 5, pp 1511–1526 | Cite as

Explanation-based learning in infancy



In explanation-based learning (EBL), domain knowledge is leveraged in order to learn general rules from few examples. An explanation is constructed for initial exemplars and is then generalized into a candidate rule that uses only the relevant features specified in the explanation; if the rule proves accurate for a few additional exemplars, it is adopted. EBL is thus highly efficient because it combines both analytic and empirical evidence. EBL has been proposed as one of the mechanisms that help infants acquire and revise their physical rules. To evaluate this proposal, 11- and 12-month-olds (n = 260) were taught to replace their current support rule (that an object is stable when half or more of its bottom surface is supported) with a more sophisticated rule (that an object is stable when half or more of the entire object is supported). Infants saw teaching events in which asymmetrical objects were placed on a base, followed by static test displays involving a novel asymmetrical object and a novel base. When the teaching events were designed to facilitate EBL, infants learned the new rule with as few as two (12-month-olds) or three (11-month-olds) exemplars. When the teaching events were designed to impede EBL, however, infants failed to learn the rule. Together, these results demonstrate that even infants, with their limited knowledge about the world, benefit from the knowledge-based approach of EBL.


Infant cognition Knowledge acquisition Explanation-based learning 


Author note

This research was supported by a grant from the NICHD (HD-21104) to R.B. We thank Frank Keil and Alan Leslie for helpful suggestions; Stephanie Sloane and the research staff at the UIUC Infant Cognition Laboratory for their help with the data collection; and the parents and infants who participated in the research.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignChampaignUSA
  2. 2.Department of Computer ScienceUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbanaUSA

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