Language and math are important tools that allow humans to better understand the world around them, and communicate with one another. Some cognitive scientists are interested in learning more about how children develop language skills and conceptions about basic math principles, and how the development of math and language skills in early childhood might be interrelated.
Research has shown that adults prefer the simplest explanation with the fewest causes to explanations that are more probable, but more complex. This study asked: do children use the same reasoning?
In the first condition, children were read three storybooks. In each book, children were asked to choose between different explanations for events. The first story determined whether children prefer a simple or a more complex explanation. The second story determined whether children prefer a more probable or a less probable explanation. The third story pitted simple explanations against more probable, but more complex explanations. We predicted that children will reason the same way as adults and choose the simpler, but less probable explanation.
Through testing at the Discovery Center we found that children had trouble with our probability storybook. We introduced a new condition that aimed to explain probability more clearly. Children were shown red and green chips that lit up a toy. There were many more green chips than red chips. The researcher hid the chips, and then chose one to make the toy light up. When asked which chip caused the toy to light up, we predicted children would say ‘a green one’ because that is the more probable explanation.
This research helped us better understand whether using principles of simplicity and probability is one way children are able to form theories about the world, despite the fact that they may observe only small amounts of evidence.
This research was presented at the 7th International Conference of Development and Learning. You can download and read the paper: Ockham’s razor as inductive bias in preschooler’s causal explanations here.
Learn about other research related to Math and Language Cognition.
This research is conducted by the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT