The Importance of Being Interpreted: Grounded Words and Children’s Relational Reasoning

Son, J. Y., Smith, L. B., Goldstone, R. L., & Leslie, M. (2012).  The Importance of Being Interpreted: Grounded Words and Children’s Relational Reasoning, Frontiers in Developmental Psychology, 3, 1-12.

Although young children typically have trouble reasoning relationally, they are aided by the presence of relational words (e.g., Gentner & Rattermann, 1991). They also reason well about commonly experienced event structures (e.g., Fivush, 1984).  Relational words may benefit relational reasoning because they activate well-understood event structures.  Two candidate hypotheses were tested: (1) the Schema hypothesis, according to which words help relational reasoning because they are grounded in schematized experiences  and (2) the Optimal Vagueness hypothesis, by which words benefit relational reasoning because the activated schema is open enough (without too much specificity) so that it can be applied analogically to novel problems. Four experiments examine these two hypotheses by examining how training with a label influences schematic interpretations of a scene, the kinds of scenes that are conducive to schematic interpretations, and whether children must figure out the interpretation themselves to benefit from the act of interpreting a scene as an event.  Experiment 1 shows the superiority of schema-evoking words over words that do not connect to schematized experiences.  Experiments 2 and 3 further reveal that these words must be applied to vaguely related perceptual instances rather than unrelated or concretely related instances in order to draw attention to relational structure.  Experiment 4 provides evidence that even when children do not work out an interpretation for themselves, just the act of interpreting an ambiguous scene is potent for relational generalization.  The present results suggest that relational words (and in particular their meanings) are created from the act of interpreting a perceptual situation in the context of a word grounded in meaningful experiences.

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