Simplicity and generalization: Short-cutting abstraction in children’s object categorizations

Son, J. Y., Smith, L. B., & Goldstone, R. L. (2008).  implicity and generalization: Short-cutting abstraction in children’s object categorizations. Cognition, 108, 626-638.

Development in any domain is often characterized by increasingly abstract representations. Recent evidence in the domain of shape recognition provides one example; between 18 and 24 months children appear to build increasingly abstract representations of object shape [Smith, L. B. (2003). Learning to recognize objects. Psychological Science, 14, 244– 250]. Abstraction is in part simplification because it requires the removal of irrelevant information. At the same time, part of generalization is ignoring irrelevant differences. The resulting prediction is this: simplification may enable generalization. Four experiments asked whether simple training instances could shortcut the process of abstraction and directly promote appropriate generalization. Toddlers were taught novel object categories with either simple or complex training exemplars. We found that children who learned with simple objects were able to generalize according to shape similarity, typically relevant for early object categories, better than those who learned with complex objects. Abstraction is the product of learning; using simplified – already abstracted instances – can short-cut that learning, leading to robust generalization.

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