Young children consider the expected utility of others’ learning to decide what to teach


Direct instruction facilitates learning without the costs of exploration, yet teachers must be selective because not everything can nor needs to be taught. How do we decide what to teach and what to leave for learners to discover? Here we investigate the cognitive underpinnings of the human ability to prioritize what to teach. We present a computational model that decides what to teach by maximizing the learner’s expected utility of learning from instruction and from exploration, and we show that children (aged 5–7 years) make decisions that are consistent with the model’s predictions (that is, minimizing the learner’s costs and maximizing the rewards). Children flexibly considered either the learner’s utility or their own, depending on the context, and even considered costs they had not personally experienced, to decide what to teach. These results suggest that utility-based reasoning may play an important role in curating cultural knowledge by supporting selective transmission of high-utility information.

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Fig. 1: Full model equation and table of model space.
Fig. 2: Experiment 1: stimuli, behavioural results and model predictions.
Fig. 3: Experiment 1: model comparison by noise parameter.
Fig. 4: Experiments 2–3: behavioural results.

Data availability

The data and analysis scripts that support the findings of this study are available at

Code availability

Model code and full predictions can be found at


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We thank C. Dweck, M. C. Frank, E. Markman, M. H. Tessler, M. Asaba, K. Weisman and N. Vélez for helpful conversations and insightful comments. We thank G. Bennett-Pierre, A. Singh, F. Kramer, A. Garron and N. Chandaria for help with data collection and coding. We are grateful to the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose and the children and families who participated in this research. This work was funded by a John Templeton Foundation Varieties of Understanding grant (to H.G.), a James S. McDonnell Scholar Award (to H.G.) and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (to S.B.). In addition, this material is based upon work supported by the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines (CBMM), funded by NSF-STC award CCF-1231216. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

S.B. and H.G. conceived of and designed the experiments. S.B. collected and analysed the data. J.J.-E. designed, implemented and conducted the formal model comparisons, with assistance from S.B. and H.G. S.B., H.G. and J.J.-E. interpreted the results and wrote and edited the manuscript.

Correspondence to Sophie Bridgers or Hyowon Gweon.

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Supplementary Methods 1 and 2, Supplementary Results 1 and 2, Supplementary Figs. 1–7, Supplementary Note 1 and Supplementary References.

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Bridgers, S., Jara-Ettinger, J. & Gweon, H. Young children consider the expected utility of others’ learning to decide what to teach. Nat Hum Behav 4, 144–152 (2020).

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