Developmental trajectories in the understanding of everyday uncertainty terms


Dealing with uncertainty and different degrees of frequency and probability is critical in many everyday activities. 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”). Investigating how people interpret and utilize different natural language expressions of frequency and probability is therefore crucial to understand reasoning and behavior in real-world situations. While there is considerable work exploring how adults understand everyday 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 terms. Each participant provided numerical estimates for 14 expressions, comprising both frequency and probability phrases. In total we obtained 2,856 quantitative judgments, including 2,240 judgments from children. 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, our findings provide key insights into the developmental trajectories underlying the understanding of everyday 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.