Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Basic-Level Kinds and Object Persistence

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Basic-Level Kinds and Object Persistence

Article excerpt

In three experiments, we explored the basis of adults' judgments of individual object persistence through transformation. Participants watched scenarios in which an object underwent a transformation into an object belonging to the same or a different basic-level kind. Participants were queried about the object's persistence through the transformation as an individual (indexed by its proper name) and as a member of the original kind (indexed by its basic-level count noun in Experiments 1 and 2, or by its superordinate-level noun in Experiment 3). In all experiments, participants rated objects that were altered in a way that maintained basic-level kind to be less likely to retain their proper name than those that were altered in a way that changed basic-level kind. These findings suggest that shared basic-level kind membership serves as a dimension of similarity over which objects' unique individual identities are highlighted. We discuss the implications of the results for existing theoretical accounts of adults' judgments of individual object persistence.

Researchers who study object concepts have recently begun to broaden the scope of their investigations to examine not only the representation of kinds (e.g., person, cat) but also the representation of individuals (e.g., Queen Elizabeth, Felix). A central goal in the study of individual object concepts is to explain the basis for attributions of persistence: What underlies intuitions that an individual encountered at one time is the same individual as one encountered earlier? There are several theoretical accounts of such object persistence in the literature, each offering a different answer to this question. Perhaps the simplest is based on similarity: Intuitions that two object appearances represent the same persisting individual are based on the perceived similarity between them. Yet although this proposal may hold intuitive appeal, a pure similarity account of the basis for intuitions about individual persistence is prima facie problematic. For example, we may judge many highly similar objects (such as identical twins) to be different individuals, whereas we may judge other highly dissimilar objects (such as a caterpillar seen at one time and a butterfly seen later) to be the same individual (for discussion, see Rips, Blok, & Newman, 2006).

Moving beyond similarity, an alternative account of the basis for judgments of object persistence appeals to continuity, either spatiotemporal (e.g., Bloom, 2000) or causal (Blok, Newman, & Rips, 2005; Rips et al., 2006). According to this alternative, intuitions about object persistence arise from the inference that an object observed earlier traces a connected path through space and time to an object observed later, or that the latter is a causal outgrowth of the former. Another alternative to the similarity account posits that judgments of object persistence are linked fundamentally to kind (or sortal ) representations, as proposed initially by philosophers (e.g., Hirsch, 1982; Wiggins, 2001) and taken up by psychologists (e.g., Bonatti, Frot, Zangl, & Mehler, 2002; Hall, 1998; Macnamara, 1986; Rhemtulla & Xu, 2007; Xu, 1997; Xu & Carey, 1996; Xu, Cote, & Baker, 2005). According to this account, intuitions about the persistence of objects may be linked to inferences about continuity, but they also depend critically on the availability of a kind concept, typically a basic-level kind concept (e.g., cat, rather than the subordinate-level Burmese or the superordinate-level animal; see Macnamara, 1986), covering objects observed earlier and later. For example, in order for a cat seen at one time to be judged to be the same individual as one seen later, the later object must also be a cat.

To obtain evidence bearing on these accounts, several researchers have developed a paradigm that involves gathering judgments about the persistence of individual objects that undergo change, brought about by a magician (Liittschwager, 1995) or by a science-fiction machine (Blok et al. …

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