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Concept Formation

Psychology EncyclopediaLearning & Memory

Learning process by which items are categorized and related to each other.

A concept is a generalization that helps to organize information into categories. For example, the concept "square" is used to describe those things that have four equal sides and four right angles. Thus, the concept categorize things whose properties meet the set requirements. The way young children learn concepts has been studied in experimental situations using so-called artificial concepts such as "square." In contrast, real-life, or natural, concepts have characteristic rather than defining features. For example, a robin would be a prototypical or "good" example of the concept "bird." A penguin lacks an important defining feature of this category—flight, and thus is not as strong an example of a "bird." Similarly, for many children the concept "house" represents a squarish structure with walls, windows, and a chimney that provides shelter. In later development, the child's concept of house would be expanded to include nontypical examples, such as "teepee" or "igloo," both of which have some but not all of the prototypical characteristics that the children have learned for this concept.

Natural concepts are often learned through the use of prototypes, highly typical examples of a category— like the robin cited above. The other major method of concept learning is through the trial-and-error method of testing hypotheses. People will guess or assume that a certain item is an instance of a particular concept; they then learn more about the concept when they see whether their hypothesis is correct or not.

People learn simple concepts more readily than complex ones. For example, the easiest concept to learn is one with only a single defining feature. The next easiest is one with multiple features, all of which must be present in every case, known as the conjunctive concept. In conjunctive concepts, and links all the required attributes. For example, the concept square is defined by four sides and four 90-degree angles. It is more difficult to master a so-called disjunctive concept, when either one feature or another must be present. People also learn concepts more easily when they are given positive rather than negative examples of a concept (e.g., shown what it is rather than what it is not).

Further Reading

Bruner, Jerome S. Studies in Cognitive Growth: A Collaboration at the Center for Cognitive Studies. New York: Wiley, 1966.

Ginsburg, Herbert, and Sylvia Opper. Piaget's Theory of Intellectual Development. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

Lee, Victor, and Prajna Das Gupta. (eds.) Children's Cognitive and Language Development. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.

McShane, John. Cognitive Development: An Information Processing Approach. Oxford, Eng.: B. Blackwell, 1991.

Piaget, Jean, and Barbel Inhelder. The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence. New York: Basic Books, 1958.

Sameroff, Arnold J., and Marshall M. Haith. (eds.) The Five to Seven Year Shift: The Age of Reason and Responsibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

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