From the structure of experience to concepts of structure: How the concept “cause” is attributed to objects and events.

The pervasive presence of relational information in concepts, and its indirect presence in sensory input, raises the question of how it is extracted from experience. We operationalized experience as a stream of events in which reliable predictive relationships exist among random ones, and in which learners are naïve as to what they will learn (i.e., a statistical learning paradigm). First, we asked whether predictive event pairs would spontaneously be seen as causing each other, given no instructions to evaluate causality. We found that predictive information indeed informed later causal judgments but did not lead to a spontaneous sense of causality. Thus, event contingencies are relevant to causal inference, but such interpretations may not occur fully bottom-up. A second question was how such experience might be used to learn about novel objects. Because events occurred either around or involving a continually present object, we were able to distinguish objects from events. We found that objects can be attributed causal properties by virtue of a higher-order structure, in which the object’s identity is linked not to the increased likelihood of its effect, but rather, to the predictive structure among events, given its presence. This is an important demonstration that objects’ causal properties can be highly abstract: They need not refer to an occurrence of a sensory event per se, or its link to an object, but rather to whether or not a predictive relationship holds among events in its presence. These learning mechanisms may be important for acquiring abstract knowledge from experience. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)