Some Current Projects
The develoment of mental simulation as a strategy for solving problems with multiple alternatives
With Angela Nyhout, University of Kent
Project overview: As adults, we readily work through alternative possibilities and their potential consequences in our minds before acting. This capacity for mental simulation is powerful—it enables us to internally explore alternatives without incurring costs of acting in reality. Young children are highly exploratory in the real world, but little is known about their ability and tendency to engage in internal exploration via mental simulation. This BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant funded project will investigate the development of mental simulation when solving problems with multiple alternatives. Using a computer-based paradigm where participants choose where to drop balls into a vertical maze to hit a goal, we will investigate how the costs of exploring and individual differences in executive functions influence 4- to 7-year-old children’s tendency to simulate.
Check out our 2021 EPS conference poster and 3 min talk for an overview of our Research Plan for the first part of this project.
Mechanisms underpinning the development of overimitation
Project overview: Children are savvy social learners, but across early childhood (2-to-4-years) their tendency to copy everything they see someone do—including actions that are causally unnecessary (termed ‘overimitation’)—increases. Although much effort has been put into uncovering why children overimitate, less attention has been paid to the cognitive mechanisms underpinning its development. Despite appearing irrational, copying everything makes sense if you can recognize that someone’s actions are being done for your benefit—e.g., to show you how something works. Thus, one potentially relevant cognitive skill is the ability to reason about others’ mental states. This project is investigating whether theory-of-mind skills predict tendency to overimitate in early childhood.
Check out this 2020 EPS conference poster and 3 min talk for an overview of the Research Plan for this project.
The development of causal reasoning in early childhood
With Daphna Buchsbaum, Brown University
Project overview: The ability to identify causal relationships is a fundamental cognitive skill. Like older children and adults, toddlers can learn simple cause-effect relationships between a single action and its outcome—e.g., that pressing a button on a puzzle-box causes it to dispense a sticker. However, successfully navigating the real world requires understanding of more complex causal relationships. This project research is investingating the early development of the ability to learn and execute causal action sequences—e.g., that you need to first turn a knob and then press a button to get a sticker.
A related project is aiming to develop a computer-based paradigm for investigating the development of children’s causal reasoning and use it to collect data online. This will initially involve testing whether established findings with physical puzzle-box paradigms (e.g., that causes must preced their effects) can be replicated in comparable on-screen tasks. If this is the case, the computer-based paradigm will be used to further investigate the cues children of different ages use to make causal inferences (e.g., temporal and spatial contiguity).
The evolution and development of causal imitation: the role of physical knowledge and intentionality
With Daphna Buchsbaum, Brown University, and Amanda Seed, University of St Andrews
Project overview: Children are known to be remarkably sensitive to the goals and intentions underlying the actions they observe; whether non-human primates are also sensitive to either intentionality or ostensive cueing is an open and timely question. This project investigates differences in causal and social reasoning between children and capuchin monkeys, with the aim of helping us determine the evolutionary origins of uniquely human cognition. We compared the performance of children and capuchins in tasks designed to examine whether differing social and physical expectations influence causal inferences from otherwise identical sequences of action.
Some Previous Projects
Time and causality in cognitive development
With Mark Buehner, Cariff University, Teresa McCormack, QUB, David Lagnado, UCL, Christoph Hoerl, University of Warwick, Emma Blakey, University of Sheffield, Sara Lorimer, QUB
Project overview: This interdisciplinary Leverhulme Trust funded project investigated the relationship between causal knowledge, intentionality and time perception across development. While it has long been known that time is a cue to causation (e.g. temporal priority and contiguity principles), recent work with adults has demonstrated that the reverse is also true: causality can influence our experience of time. We explored the developmental origins and trajectory of two related phenomena: causal binding (the subjective compression of time between two causally related events) and causal reordering (the subjective reordering of events in line with causal beliefs). Our main findings were that binding and reordering are present early in development (from 4 years), suggesting that the bidirectional relation between causality and time is established already early in development.
Physical reasoning in domestic dogs: revisiting knowledge of gravity and solidity
With Daphna Buchsbaum, Brown University and Julia Espinosa, University of Toronto
Project overview: In comparison to the recent explosion of research on dog social cognition, relatively little is known about their physical cognition skills; that is, their intuitions about inanimate object properties, the interactions between them, and the physical forces that act upon them. What little we do know suggests that in contrast to their impressive socio-cognitive abilities, dogs’ ability to solve problems that involve knowledge of the physical world may be relatively impoverished. However, the tasks that have been presented to dogs to date have been relatively complex, and are typically not passed by children until around 2.5 years of age. In this work, we presented dogs with some classic tasks from developmental psychology (the tubes task, Hood, 1995, and the table/shelf task, Spelke, 1992), to better understand what factors guide their behaviour when searching for displaced objects.