Get access

Where the Wild Things Are: Informal Experience and Ecological Reasoning


  • This research was supported by NSF Grant 0236338 to J. D. Coley. So many people have contributed to this research that space precludes mentioning them all, but I am especially grateful to the parents, teachers, and staff of the schools and programs that participated in the research, and to Kaitlyn Amato, Yui Anzai, Allison Baker, Tara Muratore, Nadya Vasilyeva, and Anna Vitkin, and for their tireless efforts on data collection and organization, and thoughtful discussions on the meaning of it all. I am also indebted to Rebekah Levine Coley for statistical advice.

concerning this article should be addressed to John D. Coley, Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, 360 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. Electronic mail may be sent to


Category-based induction requires selective use of different relations to guide inferences; this article examines the development of inferences based on ecological relations among living things. Three hundred and forty-six 6-, 8-, and 10-year-old children from rural, suburban, and urban communities projected novel diseases or insides from one species to an ecologically or taxonomically related species; they were also surveyed about hobbies and activities. Frequency of ecological inferences increased with age and with reports of informal exploration of nature, and decreased with population density. By age 10, children preferred taxonomic inferences for insides and ecological inferences for disease, but this pattern emerged earlier among rural children. These results underscore the importance of context by demonstrating effects of both domain-relevant experience and environment on biological reasoning.