Children’s exploratory play tracks the discriminability of hypotheses

Effective curiosity-driven learning requires recognizing that the value of evidence for testing hypotheses depends on what other hypotheses are under consideration. Do we intuitively represent the discriminability of hypotheses? Here we show children alternative hypotheses for the contents of a box and then shake the box (or allow children to shake it themselves) so they can hear the sound of the contents. We find that children are able to compare the evidence they hear with imagined evidence they do not hear but might have heard under alternative hypotheses. Children (N = 160; mean: 5 years and 4 months) prefer easier discriminations (Experiments 1-3) and explore longer given harder ones (Experiments 4-7).


Fig: Schematic of Experiments 1–3 showing the more discriminable pair on the left and the less discriminable pair on the right (actual order counterbalanced).

Across 16 contrasts, children’s exploration time quantitatively tracks the discriminability of heard evidence from an unheard alternative. The results are consistent with the idea that children have an “intuitive psychophysics”: children represent their own perceptual abilities and explore longer when hypotheses are harder to distinguish.

Siegel, M.H., Magid, R.W., Pelz, M. et al. Children’s exploratory play tracks the discriminability of hypotheses. Nat Commun 12, 3598 (2021).

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