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Concepts and categorization: building blocks of thinking

Thought can be regarded as the “language of reason." In fact, more than one such language is possible. One of the modes of thinking corresponds to the flow of phrases that we “hear in our consciousness”; it is called propositional thinking because it expresses propositions, or utterances. Another mode - figurative thinking - corresponds to images, especially visual ones, which we “see” in our consciousness. Finally, probably, there is a third mode - motor thinking corresponding to the sequence of “mental movements” (Bruner, Olver, Greenfeld et al., 1966). Although the study of the stages of cognitive development pays some attention to motor thinking in children, studies of thinking in adults have been devoted mainly to two other modes, and primarily to propositional thinking.

A statement can be seen as a sentence that affirms something about a fact. “Mothers are hard workers” is a statement. “Cats are animals” is another statement. It is easy to see that such thoughts consist of concepts such as “mother” and “toilers” or “cat” and “animal”, united in a certain way. To understand the idea contained in the statement, you first need to understand the concepts that make up this statement.

Concept Functions

A concept is a representative of a certain class - it is a certain set of attributes that we associate with this class. Our concept of “cat,” for example, includes, among other things, the possession of four legs and a mustache. In mental activity, concepts fulfill several important functions. One of them is to promote cognitive economy by dividing the world into units that can be manipulated. The world is filled with so many different objects that if we considered each of them as something separate, we would very soon be lost in this set. For example, if each separate object we meet had to be given a separate name, our dictionary would become so gigantic that communication would be impossible. (Think about what would happen if we had a separate name for each of the seven million colors that we can distinguish!) Fortunately, we do not consider each object as unique, but see it as a special case of a certain concept. So, many different objects are considered as examples of the concept of "cat", many others - as examples of the concept of "chair" and so on. Considering various objects as representatives of the same concept, we reduce the complexity of the world that we need to imagine in our minds.

Categorization is the assignment of an object to a certain concept. When categorizing an object, we consider it as if it had many of the properties associated with this concept, including those properties that are not directly perceived. From here follows the second important function of concepts: they allow us to predict information that cannot be immediately perceived. For example, the term “apple” is associated with such difficult to perceive properties as the presence of seeds and edibility, as well as with such easily visible properties as roundness, a certain color, and its location on a tree. Visible properties can be used to categorize an object as an “apple” (the object is red, round and hanging on a tree), and then conclude that it also has less visible properties of the apple (it has seeds and is edible). Concepts thus allow one to go beyond this information (Bruner, 1957).

There are also concepts about actions (for example, “eat”), states (for example, “be old”) and abstractions (for example, “truth”, “justice” or even the number “two”). In each case, we know something about the features common to representatives of this concept. Commonly used concepts, like the ones just quoted, are associated with a single-word name. This allows you to quickly share experiences that arise frequently. Concepts can also be formed “in place” for any specific purpose. If, for example, you are planning a trip out of town, you can create the concept of "what you need to take for a trip with an overnight stay." Such purposeful concepts facilitate planning. Although they are used relatively infrequently and have correspondingly long names, they nevertheless create a certain cognitive economy and have predictive capabilities (Barsalou, 1985).


The attributes associated with the concept fall into two groups. One group includes signs that characterize the prototype of the concept; these are signs that belong to the best examples of this concept. The prototype of the concept of “bachelor”, for example, may have such signs as “a man over 30”, “lives alone” and “leads an active social life”. It is the prototype that usually comes to mind when we think about a certain concept. But although the signs of the prototype may belong to typical examples of a “bachelor,” they are obviously not true for all cases (imagine an uncle older than 60 who lives with his sister and rarely goes anywhere). This means that the concept must contain something else besides the prototype; this additional something is the core, encompassing the features that are most significant for the representative of this concept. The core of your concept of “bachelor” is likely to contain signs: “adult”, “man” and “unmarried”; these signs are essential for the representative of this concept (Armstrong, Gleitman & Gleitman, 1983).

As another example, consider the concept of "bird." Its prototype contains features such as “flying” and “tweeting”; they belong to the best “bird” specimens, such as a robin or jay, but are absent in other examples, such as ostriches or penguins. Something from the biological basis of “poultry” must be determined in the core — for example, the presence of certain genes, or at least the presence of bird parents.

Note that in both examples - “bachelor” and “bird” - the features of the prototype, although they are distinctive, cannot serve as a perfect indicator of belonging to the concept, while the features of the core can be such. Further, between the concept of the type of “bachelor” and the concept of the type of “bird” there is an important difference. The core of the concept of “bachelor” is its definition, which is easily applicable. So, every adult, man and unmarried should be ranked as “bachelors,” and it is easy to determine whether someone has these distinctive properties. Such concepts are said to be well defined. To assign a person or an object to a well-defined category, one needs to find out if it has a core or defining features. On the contrary, the core of the concept of “bird” can hardly be considered a definition: we can only know that genes are somehow involved here, and the signs of the core itself are hidden from view. So, if we happen to meet a small animal, we are unlikely to be able to check its genes or inquire about its parents. All that can be done is to find out if it does certain things (for example, flies and tweets), and use this information to decide if it is a bird. Concepts such as “bird” are called fuzzy. To decide whether an object is an example of a fuzzy concept, it is enough to establish its similarity with the prototype of this concept (Smith, 1989). It is important to note that most commonplace concepts are vague: they lack true definitions, and their categorization relies mainly on prototypes.

Some representatives of fuzzy concepts have more prototype features, and some have less. Among birds, for example, a robin has the ability to "fly", but an ostrich does not. The more prototype features a particular representative has, the more typical an example of this concept will be considered by his people. So, most people consider a robin to be a more typical “bird” than an ostrich, and among “apples” red ones are considered more typical than green ones (since “red” is apparently a sign of the concept of “apple”); the typicality of an example has a major impact on its categorization. When people are asked if the animal depicted is a “bird,” in the case of a robin, an immediate “yes” sounds, and in the case of a chicken, it takes more time to solve.
When young children are asked the same question, a robin is almost always classified correctly, while a chicken is often declared a non-bird. Typicality also determines what we think when we meet the name of a concept. Hearing the sentence: “You have a bird outside the window,” we are much more likely to think about a robin than a neck, and what comes to mind will obviously affect what we will do in connection with this proposal (Rosch, 1978) .

<Fig. Does the ability to fly and tweet to a bird? Perhaps your prototype “bird” has such signs; however, they do not apply to certain bird species, such as penguins and ostriches.>

The versatility of prototypes. Are prototypes determined primarily by our culture, or are they universal? The influence of culture on some concepts, such as the “bachelor,” is obvious. The prototypes of other, more natural concepts are striking versatility.

Consider a color concept such as "red". This concept is quite vague (no one except scientists can name its defining features), however, it has clearly defined prototypes: people belonging to our culture agree on which shades represent typical red color and which are uncharacteristic of red. Representatives of other cultures also agree with our choice. It is amazing that such unanimity extends even to people whose language does not contain the word “red”. When native speakers of these languages ​​are asked to give the most characteristic examples of objects with different shades of red, they choose the same examples that we would choose. Even though the range of shades that they attribute to “red” may differ from ours, their idea of ​​a typical red color is the same as ours (Berlin & Kay, 1969).

<Fig. Most people in our culture are likely to agree that a certain shade of red represents the concept of “fire engine color.”>

Other studies suggest that the Dani, a tribe from New Guinea whose language only contains the words “black” and “white,” distinguish colors in exactly the same way as native English speakers, in which there are names for many colors. Representatives of the Dani tribe were shown a set of pieces of red cloth that they needed to remember; the pieces differed in how much their color corresponded to typically “red”. Then the subjects were shown a different set of pieces of matter and asked which pieces they had seen before. Although the word “red” is missing from the Dani language, they recognized more typical shades of red better than less typical ones. It is precisely the same effect that Americans demonstrate when they are asked to complete a similar task (Rosch, 1974). Color prototypes, apparently, are universal.

More recent experiments suggest that prototypes of animal-related concepts are also universal. In one experiment, a comparison was made between American students and Mayan-Itza subjects, living in the tropical forests of Guatemala and relatively isolated from Western influences. The American study participants were residents of southeastern Michigan, where there are some species of mammals that resemble species that can be found in the Guatemalan tropics. Both groups were given the names of these animal species. At first they were asked to group them into animal categories reminiscent of each other, then compose from them more general categories having something in common, and then compose even more general categories, and so on, until all animal species were in the same group, corresponding to the concept of "mammals." The grouping method was determined by the similarity of the prototypes. At the first stage, the participants combined only those animal species that seemed very similar to each other. By grouping, each participant received a kind of tree, with the results of the first stage of grouping at the bottom and “mammals” at the top; these trees corresponded to the taxonomy (classification) of animals.

Trees or taxonomies compiled by representatives of the Maya Itza tribe were very similar to trees compiled by American students; in fact, on average, the degree of correlation between trees made up by Americans and Guatemalans was approximately + 0.60. Moreover, there was a high degree of correlation of taxonomy compiled by Guatemalan and American participants in the study and the actual scientific taxonomy. Obviously, all people base their animal prototypes on properties that can be easily observed (general body shape, such characteristics as coloring, fluffy tail, or a certain character of movements). These properties are indicative of the evolutionary history of these species, on which scientific taxonomy is based (Lopez et al, 1997).

Hierarchies of concepts

In addition to knowing the attributes of concepts, we also know how concepts are related to one another. For example, “apples” are representative (or a subset) of the more general concept of “fruits”; "Robins" are a subset of "birds," which, in turn, are a subset of "animals." These two types of knowledge (signs of the concept and the relationship between the concepts) are shown in Fig. 9.4 as a hierarchy. Such a hierarchy allows us to conclude that a concept has a certain attribute, even when it is not directly related to this concept. Suppose that the property of being sweet is not directly associated with Golden apples. If you are asked: “Are Golden apples sweet?”, You will probably enter your mental hierarchy through the “Golden Apple” node (Fig. 9.4), trace the path from Golden to fruit, find the property to be sweet, set aside in memory of “fruits,” and answer: “yes.” This means that the time for establishing a connection between a concept and a sign should increase with their mutual remoteness in this hierarchy. This assumption was confirmed in experiments where subjects were asked questions such as: “Is the apple sweet?” and “Are Golden Apples Sweet?” The question about apples "Golden" took away from the subjects more time than the question about apples, since in this hierarchy the distance between the "apples" Golden "and" sweet "was greater than the distance between the" apple "and" sweet "(Collins & Loftus , 1975).

Fig. 9.4.

Hierarchy of concepts

. Words written in capital letters represent concepts; words written in small letters indicate signs of these concepts. Lines show the connections between these concepts.

As can be seen from the hierarchy in Fig. 9.4, an object can be defined at several levels. One and the same object is simultaneously a Golden Apple, an Apple, and a Fruit. However, in any hierarchy, one level is “basic” or preferred for categorization; this is the level at which we first categorize an object. In the hierarchy in Fig. 9.4 the base level will be the nodes containing the apple and pear nodes. This is confirmed in studies where people were asked to name objects by the first word that comes to mind. People are more likely to call the “Golden Apple” the “Apple” than the “Golden” or “Fruit.” So first, we divide the world into concepts of a basic level (Mervis & Rosch, 1981). What determines which level is the base? The answer is that the basic level is the one on which the most distinguishing features are located. In fig. 9.4 the concept of “apple” has several distinctive features - other fruits do not have them (for example, “red” and “round” are not properties of a pear). In contrast, the concept of a Golden Apple has fewer distinguishing features; most of its symptoms are common, for example, with “Macintosh apples” (Fig. 9.4). And the concept of "fruit", located at the highest level of rice. 9.4, fewer signs of any type. Thus, we divide the world into categories primarily at the level that turns out to be the most informative (Murphy & Brownell, 1985).
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