Functions in biological kind classification

Tania Lombrozo, Bob Rehder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Biological traits that serve functions, such as a zebra's coloration (for camouflage) or a kangaroo's tail (for balance), seem to have a special role in conceptual representations for biological kinds. In five experiments, we investigate whether and why functional features are privileged in biological kind classification. Experiment 1 experimentally manipulates whether a feature serves a function and finds that functional features are judged more diagnostic of category membership as well as more likely to have a deep evolutionary history, be frequent in the current population, and persist in future populations. Experiments 2-5 reveal that these inferences about history, frequency, and persistence account for nearly all the effect of function on classification. We conclude that functional features are privileged because their relationship with the kind is viewed as stable over time and thus as especially well suited for establishing category membership, with implications for theories of classification and folk biological understanding.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)457-485
Number of pages29
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2012


  • Biological kind concepts
  • Categorization
  • Diagnosticity
  • Functional features
  • Functions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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