Don't Believe Everything You Hear: Preschoolers' Sensitivity to Speaker Intent in Category Induction


  • This research is based, in part, on a doctoral dissertation submitted to Stanford University. The research was supported by a predoctoral National Institute of Mental Health National Research Service Award and a Stanford Graduate Research Opportunity grant. Generous support was also provided by the University of Virginia. Portions of this work were presented at the biennial meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development, April 2003, in Tampa, FL, and the Cognitive Development Society meeting, October, 2003, in Park City, UT. Thanks to Ellen Markman for her support and advice throughout this project; to Herb Clark, Judy DeLoache, John Flavell, Susan Johnson, Angel Lillard, and Tom Wasow for helpful discussions and comments on previous drafts; to Tauna Szymanski, Leslie Neely, Mira Cole, and Jessica Lunsford for assistance in data collection and coding; to Tania Lombrozo for assistance in creating stimuli; and to the children, parents, teachers, and staff at Bing Nursery School, the Menlo-Atherton Parents' Cooperative, and Merridale Preschool.

concerning this article should be addressed to Vikram Jaswal, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400400, 102 Gilmer Hall, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4400. Electronic mail may be sent to


A label can convey nonobvious information about category membership. Three studies show that preschoolers (N=144) sometimes ignore or reject labels that conflict with appearance, particularly when they are uncertain that the speaker meant to use those labels. In Study 1, 4-year-olds were more reluctant than 3-year-olds to accept that, for example, a cat-like animal was a dog just on the basis of hearing it called a dog. In Studies 2 and 3, this reluctance was overcome when the speaker explicitly or implicitly indicated that use of the unexpected labels was intentional. These studies demonstrate that preschoolers do not treat labels as atheoretical features of objects; rather, they interpret them in light of their understanding of the labeler's communicative intent.