Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Psychological Essentialist Reasoning and Perspective Taking during Reading: A Donkey Is Not a Zebra, but a Plate Can Be a Clock

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Psychological Essentialist Reasoning and Perspective Taking during Reading: A Donkey Is Not a Zebra, but a Plate Can Be a Clock

Article excerpt

Abstract In an eyetracking study, we examined whether readers use psychological essentialist reasoning and perspective taking online. Stories were presented in which an animal or an artifact was transformed into another animal (e.g., a donkey into a zebra) or artifact (e.g., a plate into a clock). According to psychological essentialism, the essence of the animal did not change in these stories, while the transformed artifact would be thought to have changed categories. We found evidence that readers use this kind of reasoning online: When reference was made to the transformed animal, the nontransformed term ("donkey") was preferred, but the opposite held for the transformed artifact ("clock" was read faster than "plate"). The immediacy of the effect suggests that this kind of reasoning is employed automatically. Perspective taking was examined within the same stories by the introduction of a novel story character. This character, who was naïve about the transformation, commented on the transformed animal or artifact. If the reader were to take this character's perspective immediately and exclusively for reference solving, then only the transformed term ("zebra" or "clock") would be felicitous. However, the results suggested that while this character's perspective could be taken into account, it seems difficult to completely discard one's own perspective at the same time.

Keywords Eye movements . Psycholinguistics . Reading . Reasoning . Pragmatics

From the BBC News Service:

After the zebras at a zoo in the Middle East died, the owner "decided to dye two donkeys so they look like zebras. [He] said he'd used masking tape and black hair dye, to disguise the white females. . . . 'The children don't know, so they call them zebras and they are happy to see something new.'" newsid_8298600/8298658.stm

(retrieved 12 October 2009)

While syntax helps us understand who did what to whom, we also need to understand who is who and what is what. In most cases, establishing reference involves a relatively straightforward one-to-one mapping relation between a word's sense (term) and its reference (Frege, 1892/1952). However, this mapping relation is not always that simple, and different types of mappings can cause misunderstandings and, at a behavioral level, distinct processing patterns. In one-to-many mappings, one term is used to refer to different referents. This is evident for such lexically ambiguous words as pitcher (e.g., Rayner & Duffy, 1986) and for words that become referentially ambiguous in context (e.g., "the girl" when two girls have been introduced in the story; e.g., Van Berkum, Brown, & Hagoort, 1999). Data from eyetracking and ERP experiments suggest that one-to-many mappings can be costly and can lead to different activation patterns, but also that people are good at updating this information on the basis of the discourse context (e.g., Nieuwland, Otten, & Van Berkum, 2007).

Many-to-one mappings, in which different terms refer to the same referent (cf. the use of both "evening star" and "morning star" to refer to the planet Venus, or the use of the terms "donkey" and "zebra" to refer to the same animal in the example above), have not been systematically studied. In the experiment described below, many-to-one mappings can come about by the application of psychological essentialist (PE) reasoning ("How would I classify this animal?") and/or perspective taking ("How would someone else classify this animal?").

Psychological essentialism

Imagine someone painting a donkey white with black stripes, so that it looks just like a zebra. Asked what kind of animal it really is, more than likely you will respond that it is still a donkey, even if it doesn't look like one anymore. Children less than 4 years old are more likely to classify the animal as a zebra (Keil, 1989). The reason why adults are reluctant to accept this kind of transformation into another animal is because we have certain ideas or beliefs about what makes something a member of a category. …

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