Feature distribution and background knowledge in category learning

Gregory L. Murphy, Audrey S. Kaplan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Three experiments examined the interactions of category structure and prior knowledge in category learning. Experiment 1 examined the distribution of atypical or "crossover" features in category learning. In real categories, crossover features may be unevenly distributed -found primarily in very unusual examples of a category (like whales or ostriches). In contrast, in many psychology experiments, each item has exactly one crossover feature. Even versus uneven distribution of crossover features did not affect category learning when the features were neutral. However, when the features were connected by prior knowledge, it was much harder for subjects to learn the structure with the uneven distribution of crossover features. Experiments 2 and 3 found similar results with a slightly less uneven condition. We conclude that learning is a function of the interaction of category structure and prior knowledge rather than either one alone. Furthermore, knowledge benefits learning even when the category contains contradictions of the knowledge, so long as the contradictions are not very salient.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)962-982
Number of pages21
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A: Human Experimental Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology


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