Discuss the evidence for and against the claim that in terms of their higher cognitive functions of causality the differences between human infants/ children and human adults are greater than those between non- human animals and adult humans

In terms of the higher cognitive function literature, 3 groups of subjects are of high interest and are researched in order to understand the difference and how similar their abilities may be. First of all higher cognitive functions refer to the abilities that are not innate but have been adapted or learnt through evolution. Causality is the association between two objects of things and noticing or understanding that one causes the other. So in human examples this could include going to lectures as you know this will improve your grade, one is causing the other. Researchers want to know if this higher cognitive function is universal or if it is uniquely human. Within the literature causality is measured and tested through 3 means; perception, mechanism of causality and tool use. 

First of all the question asks the difference between human infant/ children and human adults. Infants and children have been tested in regards to their perception and from a young age of 5-7 months infants were able to tell the difference between a causal stimuli and a non causal stimuli through a looking preferential paradigm (Leslie and keeble 1987). Furthermore, children have been tested through a more extensive test through manipulating the stimuli so to avoid association conclusions as could be the case in the study by Leslie and Keeble (1987) results. Children were presented varying sizes of balls on a ramp which would knock one at the bottom to roll. When infants were shown a small ball knocking the ball at the bottom for a long way they looked longer, this could suggest that they causally know that this shouldn’t happen. Adults were shown a similar stimuli but more advanced in order to test their perception and 100% recognised the causal event. These two groups don’t seem to dissimilar just in the fact that it is clear that their is a developmental trajectory to understand causal events. However in terms of animals they have been shown to not have as clear a perception of causality. The same tests as done with children by Leslie and keeble (1987) were conducted by Young (2006) in pigeons. After 2260 sessions 3/4 were able to differentiate between the causal events. However when the spatiotemporal features changed their perception of causality abilities failed. Therefore in terms of perception of causality it seems that adults and non human animals are further in development than adults and infants/ children.

Next, causality is measured in terms of the understanding of the mechanisms involved. Studies in children for this don’t Start much below 3 years old which may open up questions about how early causality develops. Perhaps perception is a basic level understanding of causality and the understanding of mechanisms is a higher ability. Bullock (1984) asked 3/4/5 year olds to play with a box that had two cars on a string that pulled one another, with the mechanism hidden. The 5 year olds were most surprised when they opened the box to find that the strings didn’t appear to join (the joining was beneath a flap) showing they did have causal understanding except this was flouted. Schlottman (1999) wanted to test children’s interest in mechanism and so gave children a box with two levers (one lever made one toy pop up – there was a duck and a jester). Some children were allowed to press the levers one at a time (unconfounded) and the others were allowed to press them together (confounded). The children were then given a new box and it was recorded that those in the confounded group decided to stick with the old box and 75% of them pressed the levers separately, therefore trying to work out the mechanism. In comparison, adults seem to over attribute causality to objects which gives rise to superstitions. For example you may think that it is raining because you are having a bad day but in actual fact they have no relevance to one another. Langer (1975) decided to test this through either giving a lottery ticket to a person or letting them choose one. They were then asked if they would sell it. Those who had been able to choose their ticket asked for $8 when they originally paid $1. This highlights the over attribution adults give to objects especially though an endowment effect (value goes up once you’ve owned it). It seems here that actually understanding of mechanisms in causality in children and adults seem very different. In non human animals mechanisms have been tested by Brauer (2006) with chimps and dogs. This study had cups with food and used both causal (noises) and social (pointing) clues to show the subjects where the food was. The chimps were better at the causal clues and as previous research shows they have perception of causality perhaps this is a precursor of understand mechanisms. Weir (2006) has also tested rooks and shown that 1 rook can create a hook to retrieve food. Although it seems that animals are still developmentally behind, it would seem that the differences between children adults are far greater than that between adults and animals.

Lastly, to measure causality we must look at tool use. Children were tested by Meltzoff (1988) at 14 months old and shown a person turning a light on with their head, most copied. Gergely (2002) wanted to further test this to discount imitation so added hands free vs hands occupied conditions. Again children were more likely to copy the action if the actors hands were free showing than in the occupied condition showing they understood they were only using this method as they couldn’t do it another way. When they copied the action in the hands free condition it shows they understand that this is how the light functions. This study was also replicated in non human animals (buttleman 2007) and they too learnt to copy when hands were free but this was only 50% of the time so perhaps they don’t fully understand why they need to do this action. In children another task was used by beck and apperly (2011) to see children’s ability in the hook task. They are given a pipe cleaner and string and asked to retrieve a sticker from a bucket. Only children 8+ are able to make a hook with the pipe cleaner to solve this task. When this is given to animals only 1 rook was able to solve this task. Although this shows potential perhaps this is just a highly intelligent bird that understands how to get the food, also they have had prior experience with pipe cleaners. 

Finally children were asked to solve a trap tube task where they were asked to retrieve food from a tube, but it had to be one particular end to avoid a trap, want and Harris (2001). 3 year olds were only able to do this when prompted and 9 year olds could solve this alone. When given to animals (limogelli 1995) they could solve it but it seemed to be association therefore to make it more representative mulcahy (2006) made the trap bigger to pull the food towards them. This is a lot easier for the chimps and shows that they do have causality. When adults are given this task (silva and silva 2006) they can solve it 100% of the time however when the trap is non- functional they still avoid it, just as the animals do. Therefore in terms of tool use adults are more different to children than animals as both animals and adults make mistakes at their height of development. 

In conclusion, the answer to this question is complicated due to the definition of causality. From these studies it seems obvious that causality is a function of understanding mechanisms and using tools correctly with causality informed assumptions, with perception as a basic precursor. Therefore it is suggested that the differences between adults and children are far greater than the difference between adults and animals. This is due to the fact that understanding of causality is a main contributor and where the biggest difference between children and adults arises. However the testing of causality is still in development and therefore studies may not be truly testing understanding of causality in all subjects due to demands and difficulties of confounders. 


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