The effect of generic statements on children's causal attributions: Questions of mechanism

Andrei Cimpian, Lucy C. Erickson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Generic statements, or generics, express generalizations about entire kinds (e.g., "Girls are good at a game called 'tooki'"). In contrast, nongeneric statements express facts about specific (sets of) individuals (e.g., "Jane is good at tooki"). Aside from simply conveying information, generics and nongenerics also instill different causal perspectives on the facts expressed, implying that these facts stem from deep, inherent causes (e.g., talent) or from external, mechanistic causes (e.g., instruction), respectively. In the present research (with samples of 4- to 7-year-olds and undergraduates, N= 220), we proposed that children's causal attributions for the facts learned through these statements are determined not by the generic/nongeneric format of the statements themselves but rather by the generic/nongeneric format of the beliefs relevant to these statements. This proposal led to two specific predictions. First, the influence of the generic belief induced by a novel generic statement should be detected in any subsequent context that falls under its scope50-even in circumstances that involve particular individuals. Confirming this prediction, participants often attributed a fact conveyed in a nongeneric statement (e.g., a particular girl's tooki ability) to deep, inherent causes if they had previously formed a relevant generic belief (e.g., by hearing that girls are good at tooki). Second, we predicted that nongeneric statements such as "Most girls are good at tooki" should also promote attributions to deep causes because they often ultimately give rise to generic beliefs, as suggested by recent evidence. This prediction was confirmed as well. These results clarify and expand our knowledge of the influence of language on children's understanding of the world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)159-170
Number of pages12
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Volume48
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2012

Keywords

  • Causal reasoning
  • Essentialism
  • Generic statements
  • Quantified statements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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

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