Labels can override perceptual categories in early infancy

Kim Plunkett, Jon Fan Hu, Leslie B. Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

126 Citations (Scopus)


An extensive body of research claims that labels facilitate categorisation, highlight the commonalities between objects and act as invitations to form categories for young infants before their first birthday. While this may indeed be a reasonable claim, we argue that it is not justified by the experiments described in the research. We report on a series of experiments that demonstrate that labels can play a causal role in category formation during infancy. Ten-month-old infants were taught to group computer-displayed, novel cartoon drawings into two categories under tightly controlled experimental conditions. Infants were given the opportunity to learn the two categories under four conditions: Without any labels, with two labels that correlated with category membership, with two labels assigned randomly to objects, and with one label assigned to all objects. Category formation was assessed identically in all conditions using a novelty preference procedure conducted in the absence of any labels. The labelling condition had a decisive impact on the way infants formed categories: When two labels correlated with the visual category information, infants learned two categories, just as if there had been no labels presented. However, uncorrelated labels completely disrupted the formation of any categories. Finally, consistent use of a single label across objects led infants to learn one broad category that included all the objects. These findings demonstrate that even before infants start to produce their first words, the labels they hear can override the manner in which they categorise objects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)665-681
Number of pages17
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2008 Feb

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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