Skip to content

Research at St Andrews

Inferring unseen causes: developmental and evolutionary origins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Human adults can infer unseen causes because they represent the events around them in terms of their underlying causal mechanisms. It has been argued that young preschoolers can also make causal inferences from an early age, but whether or not nonhuman apes can go beyond associative learning when exploiting causality is controversial. However, much of the developmental research to date has focused on fully-perceivable causal relations or highlighted the existence of a causal relationship verbally and these were found to scaffold young children’s abilities. We examined inferences about unseen causes in children and chimpanzees in the absence of linguistic cues. Children (N=129, aged 3-6 years) and zoo-living chimpanzees (N=11, aged 7-41 years) were presented with an event in which a reward was dropped through an opaque forked-tube into one of two cups. An auditory cue signaled which of the cups contained the reward. In the causal condition, the cue followed the dropping event, making it plausible that the sound was caused by the reward falling into the cup; and in the arbitrary condition, the cue preceded the dropping event, making the relation arbitrary. By 4-years of age, children performed better in the causal condition than the arbitrary one, suggesting that they engaged in reasoning. A follow-up experiment ruled out a simpler associative learning explanation. Chimpanzees and 3-year-olds performed at chance in both conditions. These groups’ performance did not improve in a simplified version of the task involving shaken boxes; however, the use of causal language helped 3-year-olds. The failure of chimpanzees could reflect limitations in reasoning about unseen causes or a more general difficulty with auditory discrimination learning.


Original languageEnglish
Article number872
Number of pages17
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 6 May 2020

    Research areas

  • Causal reasoning, Hidden causes, Temporal order, Pre-schoolers, Chimpanzees

Discover related content
Find related publications, people, projects and more using interactive charts.

View graph of relations

Related by author

  1. Establishing an infrastructure for collaboration in primate cognition research

    Altschul, D. M., Beran, M. J., Bohn, M., Call, J., DeTroy, S., Duguid, S. J., Egelkamp, C. L., Fichtel, C., Fischer, J., Flessert, M., Hanus, D., Haun, D. B. M., Haux, L. M., Hernandez-Aguilar, R. A., Herrmann, E., Hopper, L. M., Joly, M., Kano, F., Keupp, S., Melis, A. P. & 12 others, Motes Rodrigo, A., Ross, S. R., Sánchez-Amaro, A., Sato, Y., Schmitt, V., Schweinfurth, M. K., Seed, A. M., Taylor, D., Voelter, C. J., Warren, E., Watzek, J. & on behalf of Many Primates, 24 Oct 2019, In : PLoS One. 14, 10, 19 p., e0223675.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  2. Comparing humans and nonhuman great apes in the broken cloth problem: is their knowledge causal or perceptual?

    Albiach-Serrano, A., Sebastián-Enesco, C., Seed, A., Colmenares, F. & Call, J., Nov 2015, In : Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 139, p. 174-189 16 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  3. Abstract knowledge in the broken-string problem: evidence from nonhuman primates and pre-schoolers

    Mayer, C. P., Call, J., Albiach-Serrano, A., Visalberghi, E., Sabbatini, G. & Seed, A. M., 1 Oct 2014, In : PLoS One. 9, 10, 7 p., e108597.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Related by journal

  1. High fear of cancer recurrence in Chinese newly diagnosed cancer patients

    Luo, X., Li, W., Yang, Y., Humphris, G., Zeng, L., Zhang, Z., Garg, S., Zhang, B. & Sun, H., 9 Jun 2020, In : Frontiers in Psychology. 11, 9 p., 1287.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  2. Skin color cues to human health: carotenoids, aerobic fitness, and body fat

    Perrett, D. I., Talamas, S., Cairns, P. & Henderson, A. J., 11 Mar 2020, In : Frontiers in Psychology. 11, 14 p., 392.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  3. Language origins viewed in spontaneous and interactive vocal rates of human and bonobo infants

    Oller, D. K., Griebel, U., Iyer, S. N., Jhang, Y., Warlaumont, A. S., Dale, R. & Call, J., 2 Apr 2019, In : Frontiers in Psychology. 10, 18 p., 729.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Related by journal

  1. Frontiers in Psychology (Journal)

    Joanne Elizabeth Cecil (Editor)

    May 20132017

    Activity: Publication peer-review and editorial work typesEditor of research journal

ID: 267665672