Seeing behind the surface: communicative demonstration boosts category disambiguation in 12-month-olds

TitleSeeing behind the surface: communicative demonstration boosts category disambiguation in 12-month-olds
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsKovács, Ágnes Melinda, Ernő Téglás, György Gergely, and Gergely Csibra
Journal titleDevelopmental Science
Issuein press

In their first years, infants acquire an incredible amount of information regarding the objects present in their environment. While
often it is not clear what specific information should be prioritized in encoding from the many characteristics of an object,
different types of object representations facilitate different types of generalizations. We tested the hypotheses that 1-year-old
infants distinctively represent familiar objects as exemplars of their kind, and that ostensive communication plays a role in
determining kind membership for ambiguous objects. In the training phase of our experiment, infants were exposed to movies
displaying an agent sorting objects from two categories (cups and plates) into two locations (left or right). Afterwards, different
groups of infants saw either an ostensive or a non-ostensive demonstration performed by the agent, revealing that a new object
that looked like a plate can be transformed into a cup. A third group of infants experienced no demonstration regarding the new
object. During test, infants were presented with the ambiguous object in the plate format, and we measured generalization by
coding anticipatory looks to the plate or the cup side. While infants looked equally often towards the two sides when the
demonstration was non-ostensive, and more often to the plate side when there was no demonstration, they performed more
anticipatory eye movements to the cup side when the demonstration was ostensive. Thus, ostensive demonstration likely
highlighted the hidden dispositional properties of the target object as kind-relevant, guiding infants’ categorization of the
foldable cup as a cup, despite it looking like a plate. These results suggest that infants likely encode familiar objects as exemplars
of their kind and that ostensive communication can play a crucial role in disambiguating what kind an object belongs to, even
when this requires disregarding salient surface features.

DOIDOI: 10.1111/desc.12485
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