Learning About Tool Categories via Eavesdropping


  • This research was supported by NSF 0529599 and NSF 1007984 to Deborah Kelemen (PI). Additional support was provided by the SURE Program at the University of Sheffield and the AHRC Culture and the Mind Project. We thank the following undergraduate and graduate students for their research assistance: Reza Hadisi, Holly Jacobs, Maiya Jordan, Tasha Ramanayake, Laure St. Georges, and Carina Wind. Thanks also to Michael Carollo, Elisa Jarnefelt, Amy Needham, Joshua Rottman, and Carina Wind for comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.

  • [Correction added on 9/26/2012, after first online publication 8/7/2012: A post-submission editing error in Table 2 has been corrected.]

concerning this article should be addressed to Brenda Phillips, Harvard University, Maxwell Dworkin 136, 33 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. Electronic mail may be sent to phillips@seas.harvard.edu.


Prior research has found that toddlers will form enduring artifact categories after direct exposure to an adult using a novel tool. Four studies explored whether 2- (= 48) and 3-year-olds (= 32) demonstrate this same capacity when learning by eavesdropping. After surreptitiously observing an adult use 1 of 2 artifacts to operate a bell via a monitor, 3-year-olds returned to the demonstrated kind of tool as “for” the task and avoided it for an alternative task over 2 days. Two-year-olds performed similarly after eavesdropping on someone with more discriminable artifacts via the method of a window rather than a monitor. These results demonstrate that toddlers can acquire enduring artifact categories after less than 40 s of surreptitious observation.