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Rigid thinking about deformables: do children sometimes overgeneralize the shape bias?


Young children learning English are biased to attend to the shape of solid rigid objects when learning novel names. This study seeks further understanding of the processes that support this behavior by examining a previous finding that three-year-old children are also biased to generalize novel names for objects made from deformable materials by shape, even after the materials are made salient. In two experiments, we examined the noun generalizations of 72 two-, three- and four-year-old children with rigid and deformable stimuli. Data reveal that three-year-old, but not two- or four-year-old, children generalize names for deformable things by shape, and that this behavior is not due to the syntactic context of the task. We suggest this behavior is an overgeneralization of three-year-old children's knowledge of how rigid things are named and discuss the implications of this finding for a developmental account of the origins of the shape bias.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Larissa K. Samuelson, Department of Psychology, E11 Seashore Hall, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242. fax: 319-335-0191. e-mail:
**Jessica Horst is now at the Department of Psychology, University of Sussex, UK.
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The authors would like to thank the parents and children for participating in the studies. We are grateful to a number of research assistants who helped with data collection and to Ryan Brink for her help coordinating these experiments. We would also like to thank John Spencer, Prahlad Gupta and Lisa Oakes for helpful discussions of the experiments and theoretical ideas. Portions of this research were presented at the 2001 and 2003 meetings of the Cognitive Development Society and the Society for Research in Child Development. Preparation of this manuscript was supported by NICHD grant number 5 R01 HD045713 to the first author.

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Journal of Child Language
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