The paradox of relational development is not universal: Abstract reasoning develops differently across cultures


Recent studies demonstrate a puzzling decline in relational reasoning during development. Specifically, 3-year-olds fail in a relational match-to-sample (RMTS) task, while younger children (18-30 months) succeed (Walker, Bridgers, & Gopnik, 2016). Hoyos, Shao, and Gentner (2016) propose that older children fail because of a bias toward individual object properties induced by “avid noun learning.” If this is the case, children learning a language with a stronger emphasis on verbs, like Mandarin Chinese, may show an attenuated decline in relational reasoning. We first test this possibility by reproducing the causal RMTS task in China, and find that Mandarin-speaking 3-year-olds outperform their English-speaking peers in the U.S. In a second experiment, we show that Mandarin speakers exhibit a corresponding bias toward relational solutions while English speakers prefer object-based solutions in an ambiguous context. We discuss possible mechanisms through which language and culture may promote (or hinder) the early development of relational reasoning.

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