How do children understand verbal uncertainty terms? A developmental and computational perspective
Dealing with uncertainty and different degrees of frequency and probability is critical in many situations. However, relevant information does not always come in the form of numerical estimates or direct experiences, but is instead obtained through qualitative, rather vague verbal terms (e.g., “the virus often causes coughing” or “the train is likely to be delayed”). While there is considerable work exploring how adults understand verbal uncertainty phrases, very little is known about how children interpret them and how their understanding develops with age. We take a developmental and computational perspective to address this issue and examine how 4- to 14-year-old children and adults interpret different frequency and probability phrases. Our findings demonstrate that adult-like intuitions about the interpretation of everyday uncertainty terms emerge surprisingly early in development, with the quantitative estimates of children converging to those of adults from around 9 years on. We also demonstrate how the vagueness of verbal terms can be represented through probability distributions, which provides additional leverage for tracking developmental shifts through cognitive modeling techniques. Taken together, the findings provide key insights into the developmental trajectories underlying the understanding of verbal uncertainty terms, and open up novel methodological pathways to formally model the vagueness of probability and frequency phrases, which are abundant in our everyday life and activities.