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To Figure Out Unknown, Children Rely Less on Words Than Adults Do

Unlike adults, young children rely less on words, or labels, to categorize new objects and, instead, learn about the world primarily through other means.

In a new Ohio State University study involving 4- to 5-year-old children, researchers discovered that the labels adults use to classify items – such as “dog” or “pencil” – don’t carry the same power to influence the thinking of children.

“As adults, we know that words are very predictive.  If you use words to guide you, they won’t often let you down,” said Vladiir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University and director of the university’s Center for Cognitive Science.

“But for children, words are just another feature among many to consider when they’re trying to classify an object.”

For example, suppose that someone you trust shows you an object that looks like a pen and says that it is a tape recorder, Sloutsky said.  Your first instinct might be to look at the pen to see where the microphone would be hidden, and how you could turn it on or off.

“You might think it was some kind of spy tool, but you would not have a hard time understanding it as a tape recorder even though it looks like a pen,” Sloutsky said.  “Adults believe words do have a unique power to classify things, but young children don’t think the same way.”

The study showed that even after children learn language, it doesn’t rule their thinking as much as scientists thought it did.

“It is only over the course of development that children begin to understand that words can reliably be used to label items,” said Sloutsky, who conducted the research with Wei (Sophia) Deng, a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State.

The study included two related experiments. The first experiment involved 13 preschool children aged 4 to 5 as well as 30 college-aged adults.  Participants looked at colorful drawings of two different fictional creatures that the researchers identified as a “flurp” or a “jalet.”  Each creature was distinct in the color and shape of five of their features: body, hands, feet antennae and head.  For example, flurps typically had tan-colored square antennae and jalets generally had gray-colored triangle antennae.

The researchers made the head of each animal particularly prominent, or conspicuous, and it was the only part of the body that moved.  The flurp had a pink head that moved up and down, and the jalet had a blue head that moved sideways.

After the volunteers learned the physical characteristics of the flurp and jalet, they were tested in two conditions.  In the first condition, participants were shown a picture of a creature that had some, but not all of the characteristics of one of the creatures, and asked if it was a flurp or a jalet. In another condition, they were shown a creature who had one of its six features covered, and the participants were then asked to figure out which part was missing.

In the most important test, the subjects looked at a labeled creature with most of its typical body parts – except for the very prominent moving head, which belonged to the other animal. Participants were then asked which animal was in the picture.

“About 90 percent of the children went with what the head told them – even if the label and every other feature suggested the other animal,” Sloutsky said.  “The label was just another feature, and it was not as important to them as the most salient feature – the moving head.”

Adults relied far more on the label– about 37 percent used the creature’s name to guide their choice, versus 31 percent who used the moving head.  The remaining 31 percent had mixed responses.

However, to rule out the possibility that volunteers were confused because they had never heard of flurps and jalets before, the researchers carried out another experiment.  The second experiment was similar to the first, except that the animals were given more familiar names: “meat-eaters” and “carrot-eaters” instead of flurps and jalets.

In this case, the difference between the adults and children was even more obvious: nearly two-thirds of adults relied on the label to make a choice, 18 percent relied on the moving head, and 18 percent were mixed responders.  Only 7 percent of the children relied on the labels, compared to 67 percent who relied on the moving head and 26 percent who were mixed responders.

Sloutsky said these results add to our understanding of how language affects cognition and may help parents communicate and teach their children.

“In the past, we thought that if we name the things for children, the labels will do the rest: children would infer that the two things that have the same name are alike in some way or that they go together,” he said.

“We can’t assume that anymore.  We really need to do more than just label things.”

The research appears online in the journal Psychological Science.

Source:  Ohio State University

To Figure Out Unknown, Children Rely Less on Words Than Adults Do

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). To Figure Out Unknown, Children Rely Less on Words Than Adults Do. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 2 Jan 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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