The temporal priority principle states that all causes must precede their effects. It is widely assumed that children's causal reasoning is guided by this principle from early in development. However, the empirical studies that have examined children's use of the principle, most of which were conducted some decades ago, in fact show inconsistent findings. Some researchers have argued that 3-year-olds reliably use this principle, whereas others have suggested that it is not until 5 years that children properly grasp the inviolability of the principle. To examine this issue, 100 children, 50 three-year-olds, and 50 four-year-olds, took part in a study in which they had to judge which of two causes yielded an effect. In the task, children saw one event (A), an effect (E), and then another event (B). The events A and B involved the rolling of balls down runways, and the effect E was a Jack-in-a-box popping up. The extent to which E left a visible trace was also varied, because comparisons across previous studies suggested that this may affect performance. As a group, 3- and 4-year-olds performed at above-chance levels, but performance improved with age. The nature of the effect did not have a significant impact on performance. Although some previous studies suggested that 3-year-olds may be more likely to choose B rather than A as a cause due to a recency effect, we found no evidence of this pattern of performance in the younger group. Potential explanations of the age-related improvement in performance are discussed.
- causal reasoning