How do children organize their knowledge about the world? Recently there has been a shift in the treatment of concepts, from traditional views assuming that concepts can be characterized by superficial features, to theory views treating concepts as embedded in common-sense explanatory frameworks. The finding that children's concepts are tied to theories is especially striking, as it runs counter to a previously widely accepted view of children's concepts as perceptually bound. In contrast, preschoolers expect category members to share nonobvious similarities, even in the face of salient perceptual dissimilarities, and judge non-visible internal parts to be especially crucial to the identity and functioning of an item. In a sense, very young children acts as if members of a category share an underlying essence. However, little is known regarding: the developmental course if essentialist beliefs below age 4; what role language plays in transmitting essentialism to children; what implications essentialism has for causal reasoning; or how to reconcile essentialism with traditional views of children as focused on salient appearances. The proposed research uses naturalistic language analyses and experimental studies with children 2 to 10 years of age to address these questions. Specifically, the proposal has three aims: 1) To examine how essentialist beliefs are expressed in natural language by children (age 2-4 years), and how natural language expressions of essentialism are interpreted by children. The studies of natural language expression will reveal the scope of essentialist beliefs early in development; the studies of natural language interpretation will reveal a mechanism whereby essentialist beliefs are transmitted; 2) To examine the developmental incorporation of non-obvious features (causes, ontologies, and internal properties) into children's categories; and 3) To reconcile essentialism with the traditional view of children as focused on perceptual aspects of the world, by clarifying the conditions that lead to different profiles of performance. This work will allow researchers to go beyond simple models that posit dichotomous shifts over development, to build more subtle and informed understandings of the conditions that lead to flexibility in performance -- and why. Altogether, these studies will provide converging and precise evidence regarding the links among concepts, language, and theory construction in early childhood.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Human Development and Aging Subcommittee 3 (HUD)
Program Officer
Feerick, Margaret M
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Michigan Ann Arbor
Schools of Arts and Sciences
Ann Arbor
United States
Zip Code
Gelman, Susan A; Martinez, Megan; Davidson, Natalie S et al. (2018) Developing Digital Privacy: Children's Moral Judgments Concerning Mobile GPS Devices. Child Dev 89:17-26
Orvell, Ariana; Kross, Ethan; Gelman, Susan A (2018) That's how ""you"" do it: Generic you expresses norms during early childhood. J Exp Child Psychol 165:183-195
Roberts, Steven Othello; Gelman, Susan (2017) Multiracial Children's and Adults' Categorizations of Multiracial Individuals. J Cogn Dev 18:1-15
Orvell, Ariana; Kross, Ethan; Gelman, Susan A (2017) How ""you"" makes meaning. Science 355:1299-1302
Roberts, Steven O; Gelman, Susan A; Ho, Arnold K (2017) So It Is, So It Shall Be: Group Regularities License Children's Prescriptive Judgments. Cogn Sci 41 Suppl 3:576-600
Meyer, Meredith; Gelman, Susan A; Roberts, Steven O et al. (2017) My Heart Made Me Do It: Children's Essentialist Beliefs About Heart Transplants. Cogn Sci 41:1694-1712
Roberts, Steven O; Gelman, Susan A (2016) Can White children grow up to be Black? Children's reasoning about the stability of emotion and race. Dev Psychol 52:887-93
Sánchez Tapia, Ingrid; Gelman, Susan A; Hollander, Michelle A et al. (2016) Development of Teleological Explanations in Peruvian Quechua-Speaking and U.S. English-Speaking Preschoolers and Adults. Child Dev 87:747-58
Graham, Susan A; Gelman, Susan A; Clarke, Jessica (2016) Generics license 30-month-olds' inferences about the atypical properties of novel kinds. Dev Psychol 52:1353-62
Gelman, Susan A; Manczak, Erika M; Was, Alexandra M et al. (2016) Children Seek Historical Traces of Owned Objects. Child Dev 87:239-55

Showing the most recent 10 out of 99 publications