Adults rely heavily on verbal labels to identify objects and understand the world around them, and scientists have long believed that children’s minds work the same way. A new study from Ohio State University, however, suggests otherwise.
“As adults, we know that words are very predictive,” said study co-author Vladimir Sloutsky in an Ohio State news report. “If you use words to guide you, they won’t often let you down.”
For example, if you see an object that looks like a pen, but someone tells you that it is a tape recorder, you might be inclined to believe it and start searching for the microphone or a power switch, he explained.
“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.
“Adults believe words do have a unique power to classify things, but young children don’t think the same way.”
Sloutsky and graduate student Wei Deng conducted experiments involving 4- to 5-year-old preschoolers and college-aged adults to understand how they weigh verbal clues and visual cues to identify objects.
Participants were shown drawings of fictitious creatures introduced as “flurps” and “jalets.” The two creatures differed in the colors and shapes of their heads, bodies, hands, feet, and antennae.
The creatures’ heads were particularly salient, with flurps having pink heads that moved up and down and jalets having blue heads that moved left and right.
After the participants were familiarized with the drawings, they were presented with a creature accompanied by a label. The label corresponded with all of the creature’s traits except the head, which was that of the other creature.
The participants were then asked to classify the creature.
“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.”
In comparison, only 31 percent of the adults used the head to identify the creature; 37 percent had followed the label.
When the researchers conducted the same experiment with the names “meat-eater” and “carrot-eater” instead, they found that almost two-thirds of the adults based their decision on the label, while only 7 percent of the children did the same.
The findings suggest that language does not influence children’s reasoning as much as previously believed and provides insight on how adults can better communicate with children.
“Our research suggests that very early in development labels are no different from other features,” said Sloutsky in a press release. “And the more salient features may completely overrule the label.”
“If saying something is a dog does not communicate what it is any more than saying it is brown, then labeling it is necessary but by no means sufficient for a child to understand.”
The study will appear in a future print edition of Psychological Science.
You can read the research paper here.
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