Explaining the Basic-Level Concept Advantage in Infants…or Is It the Superordinate-Level Advantage?

Gregory L. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Much research in the 1970s and 1980s established that both children and adults prefer to classify objects at an intermediate or basic level of categorization such as dog or car. In adults, this leads to a performance advantage that has been found in dozens of experiments. However, research on infant concepts in the 1990s led to a very different consensus, that infants' first concepts—or at least some of their very early concepts—are higher-level or superordinate concepts, such as animal or vehicle. Surprisingly, this contradiction has not received very much attention, and both fields continue to report their conclusions as if this does not create a major problem for the theory of concepts. This chapter reviews the evidence for both claims and concludes that (1) the evidence for the basic-level advantage for children and adults is overwhelming and (2) the best way to resolve this conflict is to reinterpret the results of the infant studies. I argue that limitations of the paradigms available to study infants have systematically reduced the richness of the materials in a way that has made superordinates seem to be more readily learnable than they are in real life. This conclusion provides a more convincing story for how concepts develop over the life span.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)57-92
Number of pages36
JournalPsychology of Learning and Motivation - Advances in Research and Theory
StatePublished - 2016


  • Basic-level categories
  • Categories
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Concepts
  • Infant cognition
  • Levels of categorization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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