Funded Grants

Developing representations of the social world

My research aims to discover how representations of social categories develop across childhood and by what mechanisms these representations shape cognition and behavior. Acquiring culture-specific systems of social classification is a challenging learning problem with far-reaching cognitive, developmental, and social consequences. My research seeks to determine (a) the processes underlying the development of children's representations of social categories, and (b) how language leads children to view particular features as marking meaningful and informative distinctions in their social environment. A long-term goal of this research program is to capitalize on this knowledge to understand how to prevent some of the pernicious consequences of social categorization, while still facilitating its benefits for development and social interaction.

To examine how representations of social categories develop and shape cognition and behavior, my research over the next several years will focus on addressing two main questions. First, I aim to reveal the processes that underlie the development of representations of the social world and how they relate to those that operate in other conceptual domains. As part of this work, I will examine the specific structure of children's representations—including the extent to which children view particular categories as reflecting objective structure in the environment, as marking coherent kinds, and as playing a causal-explanatory role in individual behavior. Further, as part of this line of research, I will ask how particular aspects of experience give rise to each of these components of conceptual representation, and test the broader cognitive and behavioral consequences of each. Second, I will focus on understanding how and why language leads children to view particular criteria as marking meaningful differences between people. Ultimately, my research will build on these insights to develop new approaches for preventing some of the pernicious consequences of social categorization (e.g., to reduce stereotyping, prejudice, and inter-group conflict), while still promoting some of its benefits (e.g., fostering feelings of affiliation, cooperation, and facilitating smooth inter-group interactions by allowing children to recognize and appreciate diverse social norms and beliefs).

My research combines multiple methods, including examination of children's representations of various social groupings (e.g., gender, race, religion, ethnicity) across different ages, populations, and developmental experiences; experimental tests of learning processes in single session laboratory and short-term longitudinal designs; and analysis of parental language in experimental and more naturalistic contexts. We record all of our data on video, which allows us to code multiple aspects of language and behavior to provide a comprehensive examination of our processes of interest. We are also thus readily able to share our procedures and data to facilitate transparency in the research process and promote new discoveries.