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
  • ownership, authenticity, and object history
  • parent-child conversations
  • semantic development

Ongoing studies at the CDL

Psychological Essentialism

Persistence of HistoryScreen Shot 2016-08-26 at 1.42.32 PM

How does an object’s history affect our perception of that object? In this study, we are exploring how children think about object history and how they believe it persists over time. The study consists of one visit to the lab, and involves watching a short video and completing a fun shape-drawing game. We are looking for participants between the ages of 4 and 8 years old. Please contact the lab if you are interested in becoming involved!


Kid with ToyOwnership Tracking

Young children are able to understand the concept of ownership very quickly. Even if objects are identical they can track their object over time and space. This study is designed to see at what age that ability begins. In the past we have studied kids as young as 3 and have found that they are very good at discerning which objects are theirs even when they are almost identical. This study is a take on that, but we are looking at children who are 2 years-old!


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 4-year old children to participate, so please let us know if you’re interested!

Generic Language

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 2.13.52 PMLanguage and Beliefs

Part of being a kid is learning how to interact with objects, animals and people. We are interested in the type of language that parents use to talk to their children about how to interact with various objects and animals, and what they like (or don’t like) about them. We’re also interested in how parents and children talk about different types of interpersonal interactions, both positive and challenging. To look at this, parents read their children short stories and then ask them questions about them. For example, how did the character feel? What might she do next time? Through this study and others, we hope to gain insight into how parents and children use language to express their beliefs about the world.

Attitudes About and Behaviors Around Money

Spend-SaveSpending and Saving Study

What 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! We are currently looking for children ages 5 to 10. If you are interested contact our lab!

Object Evaluation

DogDogs and Objects

Do you remember your favorite toy? As humans, we sometimes have certain toys, such as blankets or teddy bears, to which we become especially attached while we grow up. These bonds we form to objects may, like material culture, seem uniquely human. Yet individuals of other species also have temporary “possessions” which are important to them, such as food and nesting materials. Do animals form attachments to particular objects? Pet dogs provide an opportunity to study this question, because their owners often give them toys. We seek to determine whether dogs form attachments to specific objects, such as toys, and how dog’s attachments compare to those between human children and their attachment objects. Do you have a dog who you would like to have participate in our study? If so, contact us at conceptlab@umich.edu.

Food Concepts

Children’s Food Preferences

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 2.16.55 PMIn this study, we are interested in children’s eating behaviors and attitudes about different foods. This study involves a one-time visit to the lab in which children will take part in a series of fun activities with one of our researchers. At the end of the session, children will be offered a food to eat and we will measure how much food children eat and how much children say that they like or dislike their food. This study will help us understand the factors that influence children’s food choices, an important topic with real-world implications. We are looking for 5- to 6-year-old children to participate, so please let us know if you are interested!

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 2.19.01 PMFood Attitudes

In this study, we are interested in 4- to 12-year-old children’s attitudes about foods. For instance, do they expect another child to prefer a food or a drawing they made themselves over one they bought from a factory? How do they explain their own food preferences or why foods are healthy or unhealthy? We are currently conducting this study at the Living Lab, including the Ann Arbor Hands On Museum and the UM Museum of Natural History.


Social Categories

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!


How do we choose our friends? Friendships have a strong impact in our overall wellbeing and identity, but what information becomes most important when picking out who we will play with, share our toys with, and who we do not want to make contact with? Does the type of information that we find important when picking friends change over time as we become older? In a one-time visit of 20 minutes, children will see pictures of children and hear them speak; then, they will pick who of the children will become good friends. We recently finished our version with Spanish-speaking children and now are looking for English speaking children. Children older than 4 ½ are welcome to participate!

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.

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!