Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Humans are faced with the task of making sense of a world that contains a seemingly endless array of unique objects and living things. To reduce this endless uniqueness to something that is mentally manageable, people form concepts. A concept can be defined as an abstract idea based on grouping objects or events according to their common properties. Concepts guide thoughts and behaviors, so it is important to understand both the nature of those concepts and how people construct them. Animals of all types also have the ability to form concepts. Animals form concepts at a much more fundamental level than humans, but they have been shown to differentiate among various colors and various geometric patterns, for example. Throughout its long history, research on concept formation has used animals, such as pigeons and rats, as well as human subjects.
In daily life, the term “concept” is used in a way that is different from the way in which psychologists use it. Whereas psychologists say that a concept exists when two or more things are grouped on the basis of a common feature or property of each, everyday language uses the term “concept” to refer to abstract ideas, such as the concept of “integrity,” or to a mental picture in one’s mind, for example, “I have a concept of how I want my room to look.” The term is used here as psychologists use it. Psychologists also frequently use the word “category” as a synonym...
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Techniques of Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
In a typical study on artificial concept formation, a psychologist would construct visual patterns that would not normally be encountered in daily life. The patterns would be printed on cards to create the stimulus materials, or anything presented to a subject during the course of an experiment that requires that subject to make a response. These visual patterns would vary in terms of size, shape, number, or color, for example, and would be referred to as dimensions. Basically, a dimension is any changeable characteristic of the stimulus. A dimension can have two or more values, and the value is determined by the number of sizes, shapes, numbers, or colors being utilized.
In this example, each dimension can have three values. In other words, there would be objects of small, medium, and large size; circular, triangular, and square shapes; one, two, or three items; and purple, red, and green colors. Varying those dimensions and values, the particular stimulus patterns presented to the subject would be things such as two large green squares, three small red triangles, or perhaps one medium purple circle. The concept to be learned is selected by the researcher beforehand and is kept secret from the subject, because the subject must discover the concept. The concept might be something such as “purple triangles of any size and any number.” Thus, in this case, the specific concept to be learned would be “purple and a...
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Use of Rules and Categories (Psychology and Mental Health)
Some tasks require subjects to discover the values, the rule, or both. A rule tells how the values must be combined. The two most common kinds of rules are called conjunction and disjunction. The conjunction rule uses the word “and,” as in “all figures that are both purple and triangles.” Thus, a subject learning a concept involving the conjunction rule would learn to respond yes to all purple triangles and no to all other figures. The disjunction rule uses the word “or,” as in “all figures that are purple or a triangle or both.”
An important development in research on concepts involves natural concepts or real-life categories. Rosch pointed out that the artificial-concept learning tasks use materials unlike those encountered in the everyday world. Most concepts in the everyday world do not fall into neatly defined categories. Many have fuzzy borders—conceptual borders that appear ill defined and shift according to the context in which the category member occurs—that involve some uncertainty. For example, is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Rosch theorized that people decide whether an item belongs to a particular category by comparing that item with a prototype or best example for that category. An apple is highly prototypical of the fruit category, whereas a coconut is a less typical example.
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Making Sense of the Environment (Psychology and Mental Health)
If a person understands the concept of sunglasses, that individual can recognize something as a pair of sunglasses even though they may look different from all the other sunglasses the person has seen before. A new pair of sunglasses with iridium-coated lenses can be included within the concept because the pair has qualities that are common to the entire class of objects that people refer to as sunglasses. They have earpieces, they block out the sun to some degree, and they cover the eyes. Sunglasses belong to the even larger conceptual category of eyewear. Concepts such as eyewear, cookware, furniture, and vehicles are very useful. It would be impossible to think intelligently without the ability to form concepts. Without that ability, every time a person encountered something that was slightly different from other things, it would be necessary to learn about that object as if it were completely new.
A person would then primarily function instinctually because, according to Michael Eysenck, it would be impossible to relate prior learning to new situations. By applying concepts, a person can develop an immediate understanding of new objects or ideas, because they can be related to a general class of similar objects and ideas that are familiar. A person knows what to expect from an object, even when it is encountered for the first time. In this way, thinking beings save an amazing amount of work. Concepts...
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Implications for Education (Psychology and Mental Health)
The development and refinement of some concepts take place over a long period of time. A person can have general concepts about some things, precise concepts about others, and also be in the process of refining vague concepts. In the course of life, a person’s understanding of a particular concept develops and expands with additional experience, advanced training, and new information. Understanding this has ramifications for formal education.
Much teaching is directed toward the development of concepts. In fact, it would be almost impossible to use the vast amount of mental information that is available to human beings to solve problems, make decisions, understand language, and communicate without the ability to simplify the world by means of conceptualization. One of the principal objectives of formal education is to allow students to formulate a hypothesis, or tentative guess, about how some attribute contributes to a concept. Students are then encouraged to test the hypothesis. If it is wrong, they can adopt a new hypothesis that incorporates different attributes or the same attributes but with different rules, based on feedback they receive from an instructor.
Researchers have identified a number of factors involved in concept learning that apply to the process of education. One factor is the number of attributes. It is easier to learn a concept if there are only one or two relevant attributes, rather...
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Artificial Intelligence (Psychology and Mental Health)
As science fiction becomes fact, it is becoming desirable to be able to “teach” computers how to form concepts. This type of investigation is conducted in the field of artificial intelligence. To develop artificial ways of duplicating human thought and intelligence, it is important to know how the thought process is accomplished by humans. Imagine a task in which a computer is asked to identify whether something is a triangle. A computer could be programmed to learn the concept, but it would take a very sophisticated program. In comparison, it is easy for humans to recognize immediately what constitutes a triangle, based on vast experience with other triangular objects. Concept formation in computers provides the foundation for the ability to recognize handwriting, fingerprints, speech, and many other things electronically.
One of the problems for computers is that, although some concepts are well defined, most are not: This is Rosch’s point. In addition, human experience and context play an important role in concept formation, which poses difficulties for computers. Even more troublesome for a computer is the fact that many conceptual categories are based on human imagination. Because people have knowledge about the world and how it operates, they adjust their conceptual categories to fit reality. Unless computers have human knowledge and experience, their concepts will not be exactly like those of humans....
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Concept Theories (Psychology and Mental Health)
Throughout the history of the scientific study of concept formation, three main types of theories have become apparent. They are association theory, hypothesis-testing theory, and information-processing theory. In the associationistic view, the organism passively receives information from the environment. Each example of the concept that has yet to be learned provides the organism with an additional piece of information. In this way, relevant features are reinforced, whereas irrelevant features disappear. This approach requires nothing from the organism except a memory of previous examples. This approach was in vogue in the first half of the twentieth century. According to associationistic views, stimuli gradually become associated with some response by means of a complex form of discrimination learning. By means of discrimination learning, discriminable aspects of stimulus patterns are detected and labeled. Later modifications of association theory introduced the idea of mediation, assuming that concepts are formed because of an intervening step in the mind of the learner, which connects the stimuli with the response.
A second line of theory development, hypothesis testing, views the subject as an active participant in the process of concept learning. According to this line of thought, the organism always has some hypothesis regarding the unknown concept. Incoming information is used to check the current hypothesis and is...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Bourne, Lyle E., Jr. Human Conceptual Behavior. 1966. Reprint. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1970. A short book of definite historical importance that summarizes the work on concept formation up to 1966. The writing style is enjoyable, and the book is clearly written, although the ideas it expresses are complex.
Bourne, Lyle E., Jr., Roger L. Dominowski, and Elizabeth F. Loftus. Cognitive Processes. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986. A thorough textbook on the psychology of thinking. The information on concept formation is insightful and clear. The reading level is appropriate for psychologists and nonpsychologists alike.
Bruner, Jerome S., Jacqueline J. Goodnow, and George A. Austin. A Study of Thinking. 5th ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2005. This book is a classic, providing an insightful introduction to concepts and concept formation in general. The latter chapters describe research and provide a methodological analysis of performance, beginning a tradition in concept formation that has now been discarded as a result of new findings and updated theoretical views. A pioneering book in the area of concept formation.
Eysenck, Michael W., and Mark T. Keane. A Handbook of Cognitive Psychology. 4th ed. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1984. Provides a readable introduction to the entire area of thinking, of which concept formation is one part....
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Concept Formation (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
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 categorylight, 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 categorylike the robin cited above. The other major method of concept learning...
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