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The Growth of Flexible Problem Solving: Preschool Children Use Changing Verbal Cues to Infer Multiple Word Meanings


Flexible induction is the adaptation of probabilistic inferences to changing problems. Young children's flexibility was tested in a word-learning task. Children 3 to 6 years old were told 3 novel words for each of several novel objects. Children generalized each word to other objects with the same body shape, the same material, or the same part as the first object. Each word was preceded by a different predicate (i.e., "looks like a...," "is made of...," or "has a...") that implies a different attribute (shape, material, or part, respectively). Three-year-olds showed limited use of predicates to infer word meanings, and they used predicates from previous trials to infer the meanings of later words. Four- to 6-year-olds used predicate cues more consistently and made inferences that were implied by the most recent predicate cue. Notably, 3-year-olds performed near ceiling in a control task that eliminated the need to use probabilistic inductive cues (Experiment 3). The results suggest that flexibility develops as a function of (a) sensitivity to between-problem variability and indeterminacy and (b) ability to decontextualize the most recent verbal cue to guide of inductive inferences.

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