The focus of my research is on causal learning, with an emphasis on domain-general mechanisms of causal inference. Causal knowledge is both critical and mysterious: critical, because causal knowledge allows us to change the outcome of events, mysterious because causal relations must be inferred rather than observed. This work bridges my interest in a variety of areas, including philosophy of science, conceptual development and theory of mind.

Most of the research in the lab involves babies and children. Since babies and children have limited prior knowledge and no formal training, understanding how children reason about the world can give us insight into the origins of knowledge and fundamental principles of learning. Using a variety of approaches (puppets, wind-up toys, computational models, and infant-habituation and preferential-looking paradigms) we are currently addressing three questions.

 

What do children believe about cause and effect?

Do children think that all events have causes?  Do they think that causes always produce their effects?  Do they think that human action causes itself (i.e., is caused by free will)?  Do they understand that human interventions can change the structure of causal relationships?

Do children understand the difference between observing events (X happens and Y happens) and observing interventions (someone does X and Y happens)?  Can they combine evidence from observations and interventions to learn causal structure?  Do they do so in the way that computational account s (such as the causal Bayes net formalism) might predict? What do children do when new evidence contradicts old beliefs?

 

How does being a child affect learning?

Babies and children are notorious for being impulsive (they get into everything) and perseverative (they get into the same things over and over again).  In our lab, we try to put a positive spin on this: children intervene a lot in the world and they try to replicate their interventions.  Do children's spontaneous interventions (e.g., in play) provide them with evidence that supports accurate causal inferences? Can children distinguish between good interventions and confounded ones? Do "cognitive emotions" like excitement, frustration and curiosity motivate, interfere with, or facilitate causal learning? In some contexts, could immaturity actually be advantageous for causal learning?

 

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