Conceptual development from origins to asymptotes

Goldstone, R. L., & Johansen, M. K. (2003). Conceptual development from origins to asymptotes.  In D. Rakison & L. Oakes (Eds.) Categories and concepts in early development.  (pp. 403-418).  Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Scientists studying adult concept learning are typically careful to analyze the entire pattern of responses given across all of the trials of an experiment.  Often times, the early trials are the most diagnostic because categorization accuracy quickly reaches an asymptote.  We take some pride in tackling the hard problem of accounting for adaptive processes that account for category learning, unlike many psychophysicists, who simply throw out the first 1000 trials because steady-state performance has not yet been reached.  However, lest we grow too smug, the chapters of this book provide a great service by reminding us that even though we analyze the very first trial of our experiment, we are still studying conceptual change that occurs almost imperceptibly close to the asymptote.  By the time that our 20-year-old subjects come to our laboratories, they have learned the majority of the concepts that they will ever learn and virtually all of their truly foundational concepts.  Relatively brief laboratory training suffices to teach students the rule “Circle Above Square” (Bruner, Goodnow, & Austin, 1956), a particular configuration of 9 dots (Posner & Keele, 1968), or a new fact such as that grebes are birds, but this rapid learning is only possible because it builds upon a longer and more profound process by which concepts such as Above (Quinn, this volume), Bird (Mervis, Pani & Pani, this volume), Animal (Mareschal, this volume; Mandler, this volume), and Animacy (Gelman & Koenig, this volume; Rakison, this volume) are learned.

Those of us who want to develop theories of the learning and representation of adult concepts cannot afford to remain blind to the conceptual development that makes possible adult concept use.  This life-long learning provides us with the fundamental representations that we subsequently combine and tweak.  In assessing the contribution of developmental research on concepts and categories to our general understanding of human concepts, we will ask four questions: what are concepts; what is the relation between perception and concepts; what are the constraints on concept learning; and what are promising future directions for research on concepts?

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