The transfer of abstract principles governing complex adaptive systems

Goldstone, R. L., & Sakamoto, Y. (2003). The Transfer of Abstract Principles Governing Complex Adaptive Systems.  Cognitive Psychology, 46, 414-466.

Four experiments explored participants’ understanding of the abstract principles governing computer simulations of complex adaptive systems.  Experiment 1 revealed better transfer between computer simulations when they were governed by the same abstract principle, even when the simulations’ domains were dissimilar.  Experiments 2 and 3 showed better transfer of abstract principles across simulations that were relatively dissimilar, and that this effect was due to participants who performed relatively poorly on the initial simulation.   In Experiment 4, participants showed better abstract understanding of a simulation when it was depicted with concrete rather than idealized graphical elements.  However, for poor performers, the idealized version of the simulation transferred better to a new simulation governed by the same abstraction.  The results are interpreted in terms of competition between abstract and concrete construals of the simulations.  Individuals prone toward concrete construals tend to overlook abstractions when concrete properties or superficial similarities are salient. 

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