What is the process of concept formation in psychology?

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Some psychologists break the process of concept formation into four steps. The following are examples of these steps:

1. Observation

A young child observes a horse in a pasture near her house. She becomes aware that this new thing exists. As people encounter more and varied life experiences, they continually observe things that they have never previously encountered. Observation is this initial step in forming a new concept.

2. Generalization

The aforementioned child sees another horse as her mother takes her to ballet. Then she notices another horse in a commercial on TV. Although all these horses look different and are seen in various settings, the child begins to generalize all of the features that a horse embodies: has a long mane, lives outside, has hooves, and so on.

3. Discrimination

Once the child can generalize the features that are common to all horses, she begins to note similar features that other animals share with them. Cows also live outside and are pretty large, but they don't have long manes. Zebras have the mane and hooves but also have a certain pattern of stripes. The differences between similar concepts reinforces the original concept by solidifying the commonalities.

4. Abstraction

In the absence of a horse, the child can now picture what a horse looks like and may draw it from memory. The child does not need a tangible representation of the concept in order to apply it. This ability to think in increasingly abstract terms is important as the child grows in scientific, mathematic, literary, and artistic skills.

This process varies depending on the psychology text studied. Another psychologist lists the process as progressing from experience (exploration) to abstraction to generalization to analysis.

The commonalities are that new concepts must first be seen/observed/experienced and then examined closely before they can be applied to new and indirect situations.

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In psychology, a "concept" is a grouping of similar objects that allows one to understand and comprehend these objects as a group. For instance, the concept "book" refers to bound objects with pages that contain information, and the category "notebook" refers to a similar object with blank pages. This concept allows an individual to interact with books in similar ways regardless of their size or content; the individual does not need to relearn these patterns of interactions with each individual book. This can be contrasted with the idea of "differentiation," which would allow the individual to recognize an object as part of a concept but also see it for its individual characteristics such as size, shape, color, and, in the case of a book, topic, title, and author.

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Concept formation is how individuals learn to organize similar objects or experiences into mental categories. This skill allows us to relate our former learning to new experiences. For example, the first time a child goes to a fast-food restaurant he is bombarded with new experiences (how to order food, how you get your food, where you eat your food, and so on). The child will begin to form a mental understanding of the concept of dining in a restaurant. The next time the child goes to a fast food restaurant, even though he may be at a new restaurant that he has never visited, he will access his prior concept knowledge of dining out and determine that you go up to the counter to order your food. Our experiences throughout life continue to adjust our concept formations. For example, when children are small, they may learn the word "dog" and call all small animals "dogs." As their experiences with small animals increase, they will soon learn the difference between dogs, cats, and other animals.

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“Concept formation” as a psychological term means “the experiences in (a child’s) life that give substance and referential value to an abstract concept.”  The classic example is “father.”  While this term has a biological meaning, it also has a sociological and psychological meaning for each person, based on how that concept manifested itself as we grew up:  a sheltering, protective male figure, a stern punisher, an indulgent self-centered person, a companion, etc., based on our distinct experiences that built a real experiential figure from the “concept” of fatherhood.  The psychologist (or psychiatrist) tries to help the patient go back to those experiences that formed his or her concept.  If a patient has a phobia—fear of heights, for example—the psychologist will try to pinpoint those moments when height was associated with danger—a fall from a swing, a broken tree branch, etc. 

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