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Thinking in Categories or Along a Continuum: Consequences for Children’s Social Judgments


  • We are extremely grateful to children, staff, and teachers at Bing Nursery School. We would also like to thank Hannah Jaycox, Adrienne Sussman, and Cait McLean for help with data collection, and Luke Butler and the members of the Markman laboratory for valuable feedback on this article. This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a Regina Casper Stanford Graduate Fellowship to Allison Master.

concerning this article should be addressed to Allison Master, Box 351525, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195. Electronic mail may be sent to


Can young children, forming expectations about the social world, capture differences among people without falling into the pitfalls of categorization? Categorization often leads to exaggerating differences between groups and minimizing differences within groups, resulting in stereotyping. Six studies with 4-year-old children (N = 214) characterized schematic faces or photographs as falling along a continuum (really mean to really nice) or divided into categories (mean vs. nice). Using materials that children naturally group into categories (Study 3), the continuum framing prevented the signature pattern of categorization for similarity judgments (Study 1), inferences about behavior and deservingness (Studies 2 and 5), personal liking and play preferences (Study 4), and stable and internal attributions for behavior (Study 6). When children recognize people as members of continua, they may avoid stereotypes.