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J Exp Child Psychol. 2013 Oct;116(2):105-19. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2013.05.002. Epub 2013 Jun 14.

The cost of selective attention in category learning: developmental differences between adults and infants.

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Department of Psychology, Kutztown University, Kutztown, PA 19530, USA.


Selective attention plays an important role in category learning. However, immaturities of top-down attentional control during infancy coupled with successful category learning suggest that early category learning is achieved without attending selectively. Research presented here examines this possibility by focusing on category learning in infants (6-8months old) and adults. Participants were trained on a novel visual category. Halfway through the experiment, unbeknownst to participants, the to-be-learned category switched to another category, where previously relevant features became irrelevant and previously irrelevant features became relevant. If participants attend selectively to the relevant features of the first category, they should incur a cost of selective attention immediately after the unknown category switch. Results revealed that adults demonstrated a cost, as evidenced by a decrease in accuracy and response time on test trials as well as a decrease in visual attention to newly relevant features. In contrast, infants did not demonstrate a similar cost of selective attention as adults despite evidence of learning both to-be-learned categories. Findings are discussed as supporting multiple systems of category learning and as suggesting that learning mechanisms engaged by adults may be different from those engaged by infants.


Categorization; Cognitive development; Eye tracking; Infancy; Learning; Selective attention

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