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Context shapes early diversity in abstract thought.

  • Author(s): Carstensen, Alexandra
  • Zhang, Jing
  • Heyman, Gail D
  • Fu, Genyue
  • Lee, Kang
  • Walker, Caren M
  • et al.
Abstract

Early abstract reasoning has typically been characterized by a "relational shift," in which children initially focus on object features but increasingly come to interpret similarity in terms of structured relations. An alternative possibility is that this shift reflects a learned bias, rather than a typical waypoint along a universal developmental trajectory. If so, consistent differences in the focus on objects or relations in a child's learning environment could create distinct patterns of relational reasoning, influencing the type of hypotheses that are privileged and applied. Specifically, children in the United States may be subject to culture-specific influences that bias their reasoning toward objects, to the detriment of relations. In experiment 1, we examine relational reasoning in a population with less object-centric experience-3-y-olds in China-and find no evidence of the failures observed in the United States at the same age. A second experiment with younger and older toddlers in China (18 to 30 mo and 30 to 36 mo) establishes distinct developmental trajectories of relational reasoning across the two cultures, showing a linear trajectory in China, in contrast to the U-shaped trajectory that has been previously reported in the United States. In a third experiment, Chinese 3-y-olds exhibit a bias toward relational solutions in an ambiguous context, while those in the United States prefer object-based solutions. Together, these findings establish population-level differences in relational bias that predict the developmental trajectory of relational reasoning, challenging the generality of an initial object focus and suggesting a critical role for experience.

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