Research Topic

Impact of Context on Category Learning

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Category Learning (CL) is a cognitive process that enables to acquire, based on few experiences, generalized and abstracted mental representations of objects or events. Being a primary cognitive process, incorporating perception, attention, working-memory, learning and reasoning, CL has been extensively ...

Category Learning (CL) is a cognitive process that enables to acquire, based on few experiences, generalized and abstracted mental representations of objects or events. Being a primary cognitive process, incorporating perception, attention, working-memory, learning and reasoning, CL has been extensively studied. These studies provide key insights into both normal and abnormal cognitive development, with implications to educational settings and to clinical behavioral interventions.
It is suggested that CL relies on multiple processes that interactively contribute to learning. The nature and degree of interaction between these processes depends on the nature of the categorized stimuli and the learned categorization principle. However, CL studies also present us with inconsistent empirical evidences and conflicting theories regarding how categories are learned and eventually represented. Here we will discuss the relation between the insufficient understanding of contextual factors affecting lower-level perceptual CL processes, and the lack of clarity regarding how higher-level cognitive processes develop. CL studies and cognitive development studies both strive to explain the emergence of abstracted representation and generalized thinking. We will examine if they also share similar methodological weaknesses, where in both cases the impact of contextual biases on behavior may often be underestimated. Such contextual biases in experimental settings may include characteristics of the experimental design, or the materials being used, which are not considered as part of the experimental manipulation yet may impact participant’s behavior.
One example for how conflicting views of cognitive development may be affected by apparently unimportant differences in perceptual characteristics of experimental materials is evident in the ‘shape-bias’ debate, discussed in the language development and concept acquisition literature. Here, according to one view children generalize a novel name from one object to others based on similarity in shape, suggesting that early concept acquisition relies on lower-level perceptual mechanisms. This view is contrasted with knowledge-based or theory-based views, suggesting that early concept acquisition is mostly driven by higher-level domain-specific knowledge. This is supported by studies showing that even young children may employ dipper understanding of objects core properties, such as object’s intended function, when they categorize objects. The hypothesis that such conflicting findings may result from modifications to experimental materials was tested by Hammer and Diesendruck (Psych Sci, 2005). This study showed that children’s shape-bias could be significantly altered by a deliberate manipulation of the respective perceptual saliency of objects’ shapes vs. the saliency of their functions. Moreover, while saliency manipulation had a profound impact on pre-school children, it had little effect on adults. That is, the manipulation of feature saliency allowed replicating findings consistent with the two conflicting views, in a single study.
The aim of this research topic is to present different suggestions regarding how future studies can be designed so to allow broader realizations of cognitive mechanisms rather than conclusions that may be biased by, or restricted to, specific context or materials. Contributions may include opinion papers or novel empirical studies providing a mechanistic explanation for how CL may be affected by context, and how this may impact other cognitive processes.


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