Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Similarity- and Nonsimilarity-Based Conceptualization in Children and Pigeons

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Similarity- and Nonsimilarity-Based Conceptualization in Children and Pigeons

Article excerpt

What is a concept? This question has interested philosophers and psychologists for centuries. Yet the diversity of opinion presently held by leading authorities on the matter shows how far we still are from satisfactorily answering this fundamental question.

Of special interest is the reformulation of the issue by two pioneers in behavior analysis: Fred S. Keller and William N. Schoenfeld. In their 1950 text, Principles of Psychology, Keller and Schoenfeld asserted that the very question--"What is a concept?"--is the wrong one to ask. Rather, we should ask, "What type of behavior is it that we call conceptual?" They suggested that "when a group of objects gets the same response, when they form a class the members of which are reacted to similarly, we speak of a concept". So, when a child is taught to respond "spoon" to different members of one class of objects and "bowl" to different members of another class of objects, we have observed conceptual behavior. Keller and Schoenfeld did not explicitly consider the transfer of discriminative responding to new stimuli. We assume that such transfer would be expected, so that new spoons and bowls would occasion appropriate behaviors, given that they did not differ too much in appearance from the training stimuli.

Keller and Schoenfeld saw no need for behavioral tools beyond the well-established principles of discrimination and generalization to explain conceptual behavior. "Generalization within classes and discrimination between classes--this is the essence of concepts".

Finally, Keller and Schoenfeld broke from tradition by proposing that conceptual behavior might very well be evidenced by nonverbal humans, like infants, and even by nonhuman animals. Given our own special interest in the matter, it is appropriate here to repeat Keller and Schoenfeld's (1950) insightful critique of the concept of "concept:"

It is curious to note the resistance that may be shown to the notion that the term concept need not be limited to matters capable of being verbalized or found only in the behavior of human adults. We seem to have here a problem in our own behavior. We have formed a concept of conceptual behavior which is based upon such factors as the age of the subject, his ability to verbalize, and the fact that he is human.

Of course, even those only faintly familiar with work in the area are aware that behavioral analyses, such as Keller and Schoenfeld's, have had rather little impact on mainstream research and theory in conceptualization. Cognitivists appear largely to have appropriated the study of concepts as their own.

One notable area of behavioristic study concerns the conceptual behavior of nonhuman animals. The primary impetus for this line of inquiry was the innovative research of Herrnstein and his collaborators on discriminations involving photographic stimuli (for a review of this research, see Herrnstein, 1985). This work, begun in 1964 by Herrnstein and Loveland, clearly established that pigeons could discriminate slides which portrayed a particular class of stimuli (like people, fish, or trees) from otherwise comparable slides which did not. Such discriminations not only held for large sets of previously seen slides, but they also generalized to novel slides from the feature-present and feature-absent categories. Successful stimulus generalization here confirms Herrnstein's contention that basic-level categories are open-ended; they comprise infinite examples of related stimuli.

When we began to research conceptual behavior in animals, we wished to build on the groundwork laid by Herrnstein. Thus, we used pigeons and taught them to discriminate photographic images. However, we wanted them to engage in a closer approximation to human conceptual behavior than the feature-present vs. feature-absent discriminations of Herrnstein's group. We thus required pigeons concurrently to discriminate slides depicting stimuli from four different classes of objects. …

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