Infants May Use Contingency Analysis to Estimate Environmental States: An Evolutionary, Life-History Perspective


  • Willem E. Frankenhuis and György Gergely, Cognitive Development Center, Central European University, Hungary; John S. Watson, Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

  • This research was supported by the Hungarian Science Foundation (OTKA NK 83997). We thank Jay Belsky, Andrew Delton, Bálint Forgács, Irene Godoy, Christophe Heintz, Mikolaj Hernik, and two anonymous reviewers.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Willem E. Frankenhuis, Cognitive Development Center, Central European University, Hattyú u. 14, 1015 Budapest, Hungary; e-mail:


Harshness and unpredictability early in life appear to be independently associated with long-term developmental outcomes, with environmental stressors affecting parental investment (e.g., responsiveness), which then shapes child development (e.g., onset of puberty). Research has detailed mediating physiological pathways, but has not specified how children transform experiences with their parents' and others' responsiveness into cognitive estimates about environmental harshness or unpredictability. In this article, we analyze this estimation process drawing on the study of contingency analysis. We propose that harshness and unpredictability produce distinct contingency profiles, and that children use these profiles to separately estimate each dimension. We conclude with six empirical predictions.