Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

The Development of Intentional Control of Categorization Behaviour: A Study of Children's Relational Flexibility

Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

The Development of Intentional Control of Categorization Behaviour: A Study of Children's Relational Flexibility

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This study investigated the development of the flexible use of categorization rules based on thematic or taxonomic relations in 5- to 10-year-old children and adults. The developmental paths of two components of flexibility are described: Maintenance of a categorical relation and switching between two relations. Conceptual representations have been manipulated in confronting the controlled use of a thematic vs. a taxonomic relation. Executive demands were graduated across three successive phases requiring picture matching in different conflicting contexts. Data revealed the interplay between conceptual and executive aspects. Controlled use was achieved earlier for a thematic categorization rule than for a taxonomic rule, even if participants did recognize both types of pictures-matchings. Results are discussed within two alternative, though compatible, frameworks accounting for the influence of conceptual representations on relational flexibility.

KEYWORDS: flexibility, control, semantic categories.

Object categorization is certainly one of the most essential and adaptive activities of human cognition. Not only do categories allow one to function efficiently by organizing knowledge about the environment, but they are also a powerful means to infer properties of objects - especially novel ones - on the basis of their categorical belonging (Sloutsky, 2003). Virtually all objects belong to several categories, perceptual categories founded on shared perceptual properties, and/or different kinds of semantic categories like taxonomic ones - grouping objects of a same sort - and thematic categories involving all sorts of objects that can be met together in a common scene or event. Depending on the specific features of a situation, it may be preferable to privilege one specific category for an object. For instance, a Saint Bernard belongs to both the taxonomic category of dogs and the thematic category of mountain rescue. Although dogs might not usually be allowed as passengers in helicopters, considering a Saint Bernard as an essential element for a mountain rescue, and hence letting it get in, is highly recommended when a human life is at stake. Selection of the most appropriate categorical representation for an object is ensured by categorical flexibility, that is, the ability to consider an object as a member of multiple categories (Blaye & Bonthoux, 2001; Blaye, Bernard-Peyron, Paour, & Bonthoux, 2006; Nguyen & Murphy, 2003). Flexibility of access to different categorical representations of an object raises the question of the control one can intentionally exert over the use of categorical relations. The development of this control is the focus of this paper. More precisely, we are interested in both the ability to maintain one type of categorical behaviour across a series of objects (for instance, thematic) while another potential categorization is possible, and the ability to switch to a different categorical relation (or rule) as a function of a relevant change in the situation. Controlled maintenance and switching lie at the core of Sternberg and Powell's definition of flexibility (1983). As we consider here maintenance and switching between categorical relations, we call this form of control, relational flexibility (Bonthoux, Berger, & Blaye, 2004). Although relational flexibility involves categorical flexibility as a prerequisite, the former implies considering the common categorical relation across a series of objects' categorizations, whereas the latter only reflects behaviours at the level of one specific object.

Categorical flexibility itself has long been thought to emerge quite late in childhood due to the mere fact that young children were allegedly constrained to thematic representations in terms of semantic categorization (see for instance, Nelson, 1983, 1985; Piaget & Inhelder, 1959). The development of taxonomic1 categories was considered a later achievement (see Bonthoux, Berger, & Blaye, 2004 for a review). …

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