The absence of a shape bias in children's word learning

Andrei Cimpian, Ellen M. Markman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is debate about whether preschool-age children interpret words as referring to kinds or to classes defined by shape similarity. The authors argue that the shape bias reported in previous studies is a task-induced artifact rather than a genuine word-learning strategy. In particular, children were forced to extend an object's novel label to one of several stand-alone, simple-shaped items, including a same-shape option from a different category and a different-shape option from the same superordinate category. Across 6 experiments, the authors found that the shape bias was eliminated (a) when the objects were more complex, (b) when they were presented in context, or (c) when children were no longer forced to choose. Moreover, children preferred the different-shape category alternatives when these were part of the same basic-level category as the target. The present experiments suggest that children seek out objects of the same kind when presented with a novel label, even if they are sometimes unable to identify the relevant kinds on their own.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1003-1019
Number of pages17
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2005


  • Shape bias
  • Taxonomic bias
  • Word learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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