Design Drives Discovery in Causal Learning

Caren M. Walker, Alexandra Rett, Elizabeth Bonawitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


We assessed whether an artifact’s design can facilitate recognition of abstract causal rules. In Experiment 1, 152 three-year-olds were presented with evidence consistent with a relational rule (i.e., pairs of same or different blocks activated a machine) using two differently designed machines. In the standard-design condition, blocks were placed on top of the machine; in the relational-design condition, blocks were placed into openings on either side. In Experiment 2, we assessed whether this design cue could facilitate adults’ (N = 102) inference of a distinct conjunctive cause (i.e., that two blocks together activate the machine). Results of both experiments demonstrated that causal inference is sensitive to an artifact’s design: Participants in the relational-design conditions were more likely to infer rules that were a priori unlikely. Our findings suggest that reasoning failures may result from difficulty generating the relevant rules as cognitive hypotheses but that artifact design aids causal inference. These findings have clear implications for creating intuitive learning environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)129-138
Number of pages10
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychology(all)


  • causality
  • cognitive development
  • inference
  • open data
  • reasoning


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