Carnegie Mellon University

The Research Spotlight section of the monthly newsletter is one way Children’s School parents can learn about research in progress.

Also, each time your child participates in a study that involves playing a “game” with a researcher (i.e., as opposed to merely being observed), he or she will get a participation sticker suggesting that you, “Ask me about the … game” and a study description detailing the task.

Feel free to contact Dr. Carver to discuss any questions you have about research.

April 2024

The Shapes Game

Psychology Graduate Student Ricky WonJoon Choi, together with undergraduate research assistants Sungjung Bok and LiLi DiMuzio, are playing The Shapes Game with children ranging in age from 3 to 6 years so they can discover age-related changes in children’s use of associations to make causal inferences. The data from the Children’s School will be compared to college students’ performance on a similar set of tasks.

Young children’s environments are filled with information about correlations between things that go together. For example, a common children’s song says, “The wheels on the bus go round and round.” This song teaches children the association between a bus and wheels, and another association between wheels and their motion of going round and round. However, the song itself doesn’t teach children whether the wheels cause the bus to move. In cases like this, children must generalize over common associations to infer how the world works.

The research team is exploring children’s ability to reason about their world by investigating how children engage in associative learning to make causal inferences with novel digital objects.

In The Shapes Game, the child completes four tasks involving geometric shapes that are animated on a computer screen. All tasks require children to generalize between two associations that are indirectly related but never directly seen together. By examining the choices a child makes in these games and whether a child’s choice pattern stays consistent or changes across task type (Figures 1~3 vs. Figures 4~6) and task condition (whether the first object contacts or does not contact the second object), the research team can better understand whether young children’s inferences and predictions are genuinely causal (because of the direct contact) or simply associative (close in space or time).

figures 1-3

Children are first told that red squares and purple diamonds go together, while green cylinders and yellow circles go together, as shown in Figure 1. They are then shown animations (Figure 2) in which an object descends from the top of the screen and contacts (or does not contact) the object at the bottom and either causes a sound and change in color or not. They are then shown two new objects (the blue triangle objects) and asked to predict which object will cause the same reaction (Figure 3). If children predict that the blue triangle with the purple diamond will cause the same reaction as the red square, then they are using the initial association to make a causal inference.

figures 4-6

In the second type of task, the object interactions are more like pushing, but the association between the inner and outer objects is similar, with each large shape always going together with the same smaller shape, as shown in Figure 4. Children are then shown animated stimuli (Figure 5) in which an object from the left of the screen moves into contact with (or does not contact) an object on the right and either causes the second object to move or not.

As in the first type of task, they are then shown two new objects and asked to predict which object will cause the same reaction, shown in Figure 6. Multiple trials follow the same pattern. Here again, children could use the initial association to make causal inferences, and the researchers are interested in age-related changes in children’s inference patterns.

Research Results