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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Uncovering children’s concepts and conceptual change


Capturing the structure of human conceptual knowledge is a challenging but fundamental task. The most prominent approach, Multidimensional Scaling (MDS), usually requires many similarity judgments, which leads to long experiments, and only provides a representation of a fixed set of stimuli. In contrast, we present a more flexible method that can generalize to novel stimuli. This method uses a child-friendly task that allows researchers to uncover the development of categories with fewer participant judgments. We evaluate this approach on simulated data and find that it can accurately reveal representations even when trained on data generated by groups that categorize differently. We then analyze data from the World Color Survey and find that we can recover language-specific color organization. Finally, we use the method in a novel developmental experiment and find age-dependent differences in how fruit categories are structured. These results suggest that our method is widely applicable in developmental tasks.

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