Differences in preschoolers’ and adults’ use of generics about novel animals and artifacts: A window onto a conceptual divide

Cognition 110 (1):1-22 (2009)
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Children and adults commonly produce more generic noun phrases (e.g., birds fly) about animals than artifacts. This may reflect differences in participants’ generic knowledge about specific animals/artifacts (e.g., dogs/chairs), or it may reflect a more general distinction. To test this, the current experiments asked adults and preschoolers to generate properties about novel animals and artifacts (Experiment 1: real animals/artifacts; Experiments 2 and 3: matched pairs of maximally similar, novel animals/artifacts). Data demonstrate that even without prior knowledge about these items, the likelihood of producing a generic is significantly greater for animals than artifacts. These results leave open the question of whether this pattern is the product of experience and learned associations or instead a set of early-developing theories about animals and artifacts.



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Susan Gelman
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor