Our Research

Our research investigates the development of concepts and language in childhood. Research topics include the following:

  • categorization and inductive reasoning
  • psychological essentialism
  • generic concepts and generic language
  • social categories, including gender, race, traits, and human difference
  • digital privacy
  • ownership, authenticity, and object history
  • parent-child conversations
  • semantic development

Ongoing studies at the CDL

Psychological Essentialism

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What makes a dog a dog, or a cat a cat? Essentialism is the idea that abstract categories like “dog” and “cat” have fundamental properties that allow humans to distinguish between and identify real-life instances of these categories. For instance, cats and dogs aren’t the same thing, even though they both have four legs! In our lab, we study how children construct and use mental concepts to help them better understand and interpret the world around them. To do this, we observe the ways language influences children’s thought and categorization of the world.

Generic Language

Image result for children sharingLanguage and Social Norms

How do we foster kindness and compassion in children? How can children learn to take on others’ perspectives? To explore these questions, we are looking at how different uses of language can influence a child’s likelihood of endorsing virtuous social norms. We are looking for participants who are 5 to 10 years old. Please contact the lab if you are interested in learning more or getting involved!


Digital Privacy

Image result for children technology

Now, more than ever, children are exposed to all sorts of technology throughout their development. In this project, we are interested in learning what children know about the technology they use and how it works. What do children understand about the digital world, and how do they interact with technology in their daily lives? We are currently recruiting children ages 5-10 years old to participate in this study. Please contact the lab if you are interested in getting involved!



Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 2.07.23 PMWhy do children anthropomorphize some of their toys, such as dolls and stuffed animals, but not others, such as toy cars or balls? Is it dependent on whether or not the toy has a face? And is it dependent on how attached the child is to the toy? In this study, we explore all of these questions. We ask our participants to bring in two of their favorite toys. We then ask them to tell us all about their toys, and play some fun games too. We are looking for 3- to 5-year old children to participate, so please let us know if you’re interested!


Social Categories


Children begin to understand gender as a social category as early as infancy, and this understanding develops throughout the childhood years. In this series of studies, we are interested in learning more about children’s categorizations of gender. In these studies, we ask children questions about what they think about different fictional characters who are presented in storybooks or short videos. We are looking for children ages 5 through 11 to participate in these studies. If you’re interested in getting involved, please feel free to contact the lab!

Children’s Reasoning About Group Norms

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 2.22.54 PMSome of our previous research shows that children take what is (descriptive regularities), to infer what should be (prescriptive judgments). That is, if they learn that a group is characterized by a specific property, they negatively evaluate individuals who do not share that property. In this study, we are examining the strength of children’s negativity. For example, do children negatively evaluate individuals who do not conform to their group because they want to uphold a moral norm (e.g., if their group typically hurts people, but they choose to help people). Do they evaluate non-conformity negatively even if we show them that it could be a good thing (e.g., speaking a language that your group typically doesn’t speak can foster relationships with other people)? We are looking forward to exploring these and other questions in the Living Lab!

Speech Registers

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 2.26.04 PMHow do children learn to talk to different people?

Everyday, we change how we talk depending on who we’re talking to –an important skill to have if we do not want to come off as rude. For instance, you should not address the President as though he were a baby; doing so would be incredibly rude and possibly get you in trouble. At a young age, children develop this ability to adjust their speech appropriately for an addressee. But how do they learn to do so? Do they just mimic what they hear their parents do? Or do they explore speech choices by trial and error? To find out, we are testing whether children can identify speech directed at different groups of people. What does speech directed to a baby sound like? How about speech directed to a teacher? Most critically, can children accurately detect appropriate speech directed to a social group they do not frequently interact with such as non-native speakers? That is, can they identify appropriate speech even if their parents do not often model for them? Finding out will give us deeper insight to this complex aspect of communication.

Attitudes About and Behaviors Around Money

Spend-SaveWhat do children think about money? Perhaps more importantly, how do they interact within the economic world? In this study we not only ask children and their siblings about their buying/spending habits, but put it to the test! We also have a survey for a guardian as well to see if there is a correlation between how parents view money and how their children view money. Especially when two parents often view spending/saving differently, it’s interesting to see how children fit into the mix! 



Research in our Community

The Living Lab
Through the genorosity and cooperation of our community, our lab is able to facilitate research through the Living Lab at the Ann Arbor Hands on Museum, University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, and the Ann Arbor District Library (downtown branch). Make sure to take a look at our ongoing studies that are taking place at the Living Lab!