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Cognition. 2003 Dec;90(2):163-91.

Individuation of objects and events: a developmental study.

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  • 1Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA. lwagner@wjh.harvard.edu


This study investigates children's ability to use language to guide their choice of individuation criterion in the domains of objects and events. Previous work (Shipley, E. F., & Shepperson, B. (1990). Countable entities: developmental changes. Cognition, 34, 109-136.) has shown that children have a strong bias to use a spatio-temporal individuation strategy when counting objects and that children will ignore a conflicting linguistic description in favor of this spatio-temporal bias. Experiment 1 asked children (3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds) and adults to count objects and events under different linguistic descriptions. In the object task, subjects counted pictures of familiar objects split into multiple pieces (as in Shipley, E. F., & Shepperson, B. (1990). Countable entities: developmental changes. Cognition, 34, 109-136.) and described either using an appropriate kind label (e.g. "car") or the general term "thing". In the event task, subjects watched short animated movies consisting of a goal-oriented event achieved via multiple, temporally separated steps. The events were described either with an appropriate telic predicate targeting the goal (e.g. "paint a flower") or with an atelic predicate targeting the steps in the process (e.g. "paint") and the subjects' task was to count the events. Relative to adults, children preferred a spatio-temporal counting strategy in both tasks; there was no difference among the three groups of children. However, children were able to significantly change their counting strategy to follow the linguistic description in the event but not the object task. Experiment 2 extended the object task to include counting of other types of non-spatio-temporal units such as sub-parts of objects and collections. Results showed that children could use the linguistic descriptions to guide their counting strategy for these new items, though they continued to show a bias for a spatio-temporal individuation strategy with the collections. We suggest potential cognitive origins for the spatio-temporal individuation bias and how it interacts with children's developing linguistic knowledge.

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