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Dev Psychol. 2012 Sep;48(5):1215-28. doi: 10.1037/a0027440. Epub 2012 Feb 27.

Learning about causes from people: observational causal learning in 24-month-old infants.

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Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, University of Washington, Box 357920, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.


How do infants and young children learn about the causal structure of the world around them? In 4 experiments we investigate whether young children initially give special weight to the outcomes of goal-directed interventions they see others perform and use this to distinguish correlations from genuine causal relations--observational causal learning. In a new 2-choice procedure, 2- to 4-year-old children saw 2 identical objects (potential causes). Activation of 1 but not the other triggered a spatially remote effect. Children systematically intervened on the causal object and predictively looked to the effect. Results fell to chance when the cause and effect were temporally reversed, so that the events were merely associated but not causally related. The youngest children (24- to 36-month-olds) were more likely to make causal inferences when covariations were the outcome of human interventions than when they were not. Observational causal learning may be a fundamental learning mechanism that enables infants to abstract the causal structure of the world.

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