Abstract Thinking in Infancy

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Humans are unique in their ability to think abstractly (e.g. using language, learning relations). Previous work from our lab has shown that infants can learn simple abstract relations, like whether two objects are the “same” or “different”. In this study, we investigated flexibility in early learning. Our question was whether repetition or comparison is more important. Multiple exemplars allow for comparison, and previous research has shown that infants who see two to four exemplars can generalize the relation to completely novel exemplars. In this experiment, we explored the role of repetition with only a single example. First, infants saw a single pair of objects that were either the “same” or “different” during the learning portion of the experiment. Then, in test trials, all infants saw an alternation between same and different pairs. Their looking duration was a measure of their relational learning. Surprisingly, 3-month olds learned the relation, but 7- and 9-month olds did not. We interpret these findings as revealing that encoding ability changes over development. The youngest infants are not consistent at encoding the objects, most likely because they encoded one part of each object during each trial, actually believing it to be different objects, and consequently learned the relational characteristics between the objects. Seven- and nine-month olds are much better encoders, and dismissed the repetition of the single exemplar. Showing them one exemplar did not help them learn.

Last modified
  • 12/01/2017
Date created