Metamorphosis: Essence, Appearance, and Behavior in the Categorization of Natural Kinds

By Hampton, James A.; Estes, Zachary et al. | Memory & Cognition, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Metamorphosis: Essence, Appearance, and Behavior in the Categorization of Natural Kinds


Hampton, James A., Estes, Zachary, Simmons, Sabrina, Memory & Cognition


The transformation paradigm (Rips, 1989) was used to contrast causal homeostasis and strict essentialist beliefs about biological kinds. Participants read scenarios describing animals that changed their appearance and behavior through either accidental mutation or developmental maturation and then rated the animals on the basis of similarity, typicality, and category membership both before and after the change. Experiment 1 in the present study replicated the dissociation of typicality and categorization reported by Rips (1989) but also revealed systematic individual differences in categorization. With typicality and membership ratings collected between participants, however, Experiment 2 found no evidence for the dissociation and few essentialist responders. In Experiment 3, excluding information about offspring led most participants to categorize on the basis of appearance and behavior alone. However, with offspring information included and with questioning focused on the change of kind, essentialist categorization was still surprisingly rare. We conclude that strict essentialist categorization in the transformation task is relatively rare and highly task dependent, and that categorization is more commonly based on causal homeostasis.

In his famous story "The Metamorphosis," Franz Kafka describes a man who is transformed overnight into a gigantic insect. The story raises the intriguing question of whether the man has really become an insect, and if so, what (if anything) of his original identity has been retained. Modem science introduces a similar conundrum: If a tomato plant were genetically modified in such a way that it bore a fruit that exhibited the features of a grape, would that fruit still be a tomato, or would it have become a type of grape? And of course, children's fiction and folktales relate many instances of magical transformation (Kelly & Keil, 1985). Such metamorphoses-whether artificially induced or naturally occurring-provide a useful paradigm for investigating conceptual categorization. Dissociating an animal's appearance from its presumed biological essence allows for the observation of the relative influences of appearance and presumed essence on categorization. In the experiments reported here, we used a particular transformation paradigm, introduced by Rips (1989), to reexamine the evidence for essentialist categorization.

Rips (1989) used the transformation paradigm to demonstrate that categorization could be dissociated from similarity. The close relation often found between similarity and category judgments (Goldstone, 1994; Hampton, 1998, 2001; Rosch & Mervis, 1975) has resulted in several similarity-based models of categorization (see Murphy, 2002). According to these models, conceptual categories consist of clusters of similar objects, and instances are placed in the category whose contents they most closely resemble. Studies showing a dissociation between similarity and categorization are therefore of key interest, since they provide direct evidence against this view (Rips, 2001).

Rips (1989) generated two types of metamorphosis scenario. For ease of illustration, consider the example of a bird-like creature that came to look and act like an insect. In one condition (mutation), the metamorphosis was the result of accidental exposure to toxic waste. After its transformation, the creature nonetheless successfully mated with one of its original bird-like kind and had offspring that resembled its original kind (birds). Participants rated whether the transformed creature was more similar to, more typical of, and more likely to be a bird or an insect.

In the second condition (maturation), the story was of a creature with two naturally occurring life stages. Young bird-like creatures, called sorps, naturally matured into insect-like creatures called doons. When one insect-like doon mated with another doon, their offspring were bird-like sorps. Again, participants gave ratings, but in this case they concerned the sorp (i. …

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