Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Kids Want to Learn About Kinds, Rather Than Individuals

Young kids have a bias to get information about kinds of things in the world.

A Tarsier, one of the animals used in the study.
By the time you are an adult, you know a lot about the world. You know that dogs bark, that computers allow you to communicate with people around the planet, that airplanes fly you from city to city, and that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.  You also know a lot about individuals you have met. You know your mother’s maiden name (which is handy when you need to open a bank account). You know your best friend’s favorite color, the toy your aunt’s dog likes to play with, and the exact way you need to unlatch the gate at your grandparents’ house. 

Your knowledge about individuals is useful for helping you to interact with specific situations in the world. Knowing your best friend’s favorite color can help you buy a gift for her birthday. Your knowledge about kinds of things (like dogs in general) can help you to predict what you should expect when you encounter a new dog. Ultimately, you need to learn information about kinds of things in the world as well as information about the specific individuals you encounter.

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An interesting paper by Andrei Cimpian and JoAnn Park in the February, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General examined what 4- and 5-year-old kids do when they are given a choice to learn about a particular individual or a kind in general. 

In one experiment, children sat with an experimenter who brought pictures of several unfamiliar animals (like a pangolin and a tarsier). For half the children, the experimenter said that she was an expert and knew a lot about these animals. For the other half of the children, the experimenter said she did not know much about the animals, but could guess some facts about them.

The experimenter showed a picture of an animal and said that she could tell the child a fact about that particular animal or about that kind of animal in general. Children would let the experimenter know what kind of fact they wanted, and they would be given a fact. Children were able to learn three facts for each picture and there were four pictures for a total of 12 trials.

When the experimenter said she was just guessing, children had no preference for getting facts about individuals or kinds. This result makes sense, because the facts the child is getting are equally useless. When the experimenter said she knew a lot about the animals, though, the children wanted information about the kind of animal much more often (64 percent of the time) than they wanted information about the individual.

One possibility is that children just want information that applies to more individuals, and that is why they choose to get facts about the kind. In a second study, some children were given the chance to get a fact about the animal pictured or about several other specific animals that were not in the picture. In this condition, children had no preference for getting a fact about one animal or a fact about several. 

Finally, a third study repeated the first experiment with familiar animals (like sharks, ants, and crickets). Once again, children had no particular preference for facts about individuals or kinds when the experimenter said she didn’t know anything about the animals, but preferred to get facts about the kind in general when the experimenter said she was an expert.

This result suggests that when young children are around people with expertise, they want to learn about categories of objects. This bias helps them to learn facts that will help them to deal with new things that they encounter. This finding also argues against another way that children could learn about the world. Children could learn lots of facts about individuals and then try to generalize those facts to apply to all members of the kind. Instead, children prefer to learn about facts that apply to the kind. 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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