Beyond the Shape of Things: Infants Can Be Taught to Generalize Nouns by Objects’ Functions

Claudia Cecilia Zuniga Montanez, Sotaro Kita, Suzanne Aussems, Andrea Krott

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Two-year-olds typically extend labels of novel objects by the objects’ shape (shape bias), whereas adults do so by the objects’ function. Is this because shape is conceptually easier to comprehend than function? To test whether the conceptual complexity of function prevents infants from developing a function bias, we trained twelve 17-month-olds (function-training group) to focus on objects’ functions when labeling the objects over a period of 7 weeks. Our training was similar to previously used methods in which 17-month-olds were successfully taught to focus on the shape of objects, resulting in a precocious shape bias. We exposed another 12 infants (control group) to the same objects over 7 weeks but without labeling the items or demonstrating their functions. Only the infants in the function-training group developed a function bias. Thus, the conceptual complexity of function was not a barrier for developing a function bias, which suggests that the shape bias emerges naturally because shape is perceptually more accessible than function.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1073-1085
Number of pages13
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number7
Early online date10 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the parents and children who participated in the study.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • function bias
  • noun learning
  • open data
  • open materials
  • second-order generalization
  • shape bias
  • vocabulary development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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