Current Research Projects

Selective folk biological reasoning.

People have complex and systematic ways of reasoning about plants and animals independent of formal education in biology. We have done a lot of research on this topic; one study we’re currently focused on looks at inductive selectivity, or people’s ability to make different kinds of inferences about different kinds of properties. For example, if you learn that mice have a disease, you might infer that owls might also get the disease, from eating the mice. This inference, from mice to owls, is based on their ecological relations. In contrast, if you learn that mice have a gene, you might infer that rats also have the gene, based in this case on their taxonomic relations, or shared category membership. Thus, the property (gene versus disease) influences the kind of inference that seems plausible. In this experiment, we are interested in a number of questions: (1) how is the ability to make selective inferences affected by time pressure or cognitive load? (2) how does inductive selectivity relate to other cognitive abilities? Tasks would involve finding stimuli, developing experiments, running experiments, and entering and organizing data.

Folk biological reasoning and evolutionary thinking.

Making category-based inferences, like those described above, is very useful for simplifying the world and making useful guesses about classes of things (tigers are dangerous, puppies are OK). However, this reasoning strategy assumes that members of a category (tigers, puppies) are all pretty similar. Although useful for making quick generalizations, this approach may actually make some scientific concepts difficult to learn. For example, the theory of natural selection tells us that members of a species vary greatly, and this variability is the “raw material” for natural selection and evolutionary change over time. Indeed, it could be that people who are more willing to make category-based inferences (i.e., generalize properties to an entire category) are less likely to possess a sophisticated understanding of evolutionary biology. This project examines this question in the first phase of a larger project aimed at looking at relations between folk and scientific biological understanding. Tasks on this project would involve developing materials, possibly collecting and organizing data.

Development of Social Categorization & Reasoning: The Case of Religion in Northern Ireland.

One very important type of category that we use every day is social categories. We constantly classify people by race, gender, age, occupation, and many other dimensions. How do we use these categories in reasoning? Imagine that I tell you that someone who attends Holy Cross Catholic Church possesses a particular property. Would you expect other people who attend that church to share the property? What about other Catholics? Would you think that Methodists or Jews were also likely to possess the property? This study will examine how children in the US and Northern Ireland make generalisations between people on the basis of their membership of religious categories. People appear to consider some social categories, particularly those which are easily conceived of in biological terms (e.g. gender and race), to have an underlying but invisible essence. Social categories appear to differ in the extent to which they are essentialised in this way (see Haslam, Rothschild & Ernst, 2000). Although it is an extremely important basis for categorisation in Northern Ireland, religious affiliation as a category has not received very much attention in either the developmental literature or the social literature on essentialism. In this project we will present a control group of adults and groups of children of different ages with information that a base individual possesses a particular property and ask them with which of two target individuals the property is most likely to be shared. On some trials we will manipulate the religious affiliation of the base and target individuals whereas in others we will manipulate their membership of other social categories. The results of this study will tell us how beliefs about religious categories develop and about the potency of those categories for generalisation. For the present, work on this project would involve some bibliographic work, developing experimental materials, and possibly collecting preliminary data with adults and maybe children in the US.

Property effects in inductive reasoning

Everyday people make inferences – guesses about unknown based on prior experience. When you decide what classes to take, what to eat, who to hang out with – you’re using your knowledge to make predictions about uncertain situations. I study how people make inductive inference on the example of people’s reasoning about plants and animals (but what we learn is likely to be applicable to other knowledge domains as well). More specifically, I examine how a specific property that people are asked to reason about affects the kinds of guesses they end up making. Previous research shows that people do indeed reason differently about different properties: for example, if I say that mosquitoes have a certain gene and ask you to guess what other animals are likely to have it, many people say something like “other insects”. But if I tell you that some mosquitoes have been discovered to carry a new virus, you may get concerned that anything that mosquitoes bite can get infected, and may perhaps even think of going get vaccinated. In this case, different properties (“having a certain gene” vs. “being infected with a virus”) lead to different kinds of inductive guesses. Although such property effects in inductive reasoning are well documented, the underlying mechanism of property effects remains unclear. When asked to reason about a gene, do you only focus on the fact that a mosquito is an insect, and don’t even think of mosquitoes biting other animals? And when asked to reason about a virus, do you only think of biting and interactions with other animals, and ignore the fact that mosquitoes are insects? Or do you retrieve all your knowledge about mosquitoes and then sort through it, trying to determine what’s most relevant for making an inference about a gene vs.virus? In my dissertation project, I run a series of experiments examining these questions.

Essentialism and Reasoning About Gender

Categories help us to break up our world into meaningful parts. They allow us to organize our knowledge about the things we encounter while allowing us to make inferences about old things and new ones. More specifically social categories include those things that are usually thought of as having been created by the human mind – religion, ethnicity, and gender for example. However, as compared to natural kinds (i.e. things that truly exist in the world – rocks, animals, water), both the contents and inductive potential of social categories is much more fuzzy. If you know that a person belongs to Social Category X, does that tell you anything meaningful about them? Think about how you would fill in the following: “Billy is a boy and likes to ____.” “Sally is a girl and plays ____.” Gender is one of many social categories, but is it treated like other social categories or like a natural kind? Do people really think it’s a meaningful category or it is simply an empty social label? What about if you are a member of these particular categories, does that influence the way that you think about them – do women view the category “girl” in the same way as men? What if you are an atypical, masculine woman – do you still think about women and men in the same way? These are the kind of questions my project is looking to answer. Recent data has suggested that while people view many social categories as meaningful, as we get older, gender may become seen as relatively uninformative. Yet, this seems counter to our intuitions. Knowing whether someone is male or female is likely to conjure up at least a few stereotypical qualities as demonstrated by your ability to fill in the blanks above. My master’s project will seek to understand whether gender really becomes an empty category as we get older or if our cultural and societal inhibitions merely keep us from acknowledging our understanding of what it means for someone to be either male or female. For this project, some of the things that you might do include helping put together experiment materials, running participants and collecting data, and organizing/entering data.

  • Contact Us

    Principle Investigator
    John D. Coley, Ph.D., Associate Professor
    Department of Psychology
    Northeastern University
    360 Huntington Ave., MS 0125 NI
    Boston, MA 02115-5000
    617.373.3548 (voice)
    617.373.8714 (fax)

    Coop Research Coordinator
    Stephanie Silveira
    Categorization & Reasoning Lab
    4th Floor, Nightingale Hall
    Department of Psychology
    Boston, MA 02115-5000
    617.373.4493 (voice)
    617.373.8714 (fax)