Title: Folk philosophy of mind: Conceptual representations of mental life in early and middle childhood
Abstract: Attributions of mental capacities play a central role in many of the richest traditions in developmental, cognitive, and social psychology, from work on the animate-inanimate distinction to studies of the perception of agency, lay theories of biology and psychology, and moral reasoning. But representing “mental life” in all of its complexity is a difficult task: How do children come to make sense of the connections and distinctions among the various perceptual, sensory, emotional, cognitive, and social abilities that make up mental life? In this talk, I present a series of studies with US adults and 4- to 9-year-old children aimed at tracking changes in such conceptual representations over early and middle childhood. These studies were designed to reconstruct conceptual structures from the bottom up using an unsupervised learning approach to data analysis (exploratory factor analysis)—a technique that, I will argue, offers a powerful and underutilized means of studying differences in conceptual structure across development and cultural contexts. Among adults and older children (7-9y), results suggest a robust conceptual distinction between physiological sensations (e.g., hunger, pain), social-emotional experiences (e.g., guilt, happiness), and perceptual-cognitive abilities (e.g., vision, memory), corresponding to traditional notions of BODY, HEART, and MIND. In contrast, younger children’s conceptual representations seem to be anchored on a simpler, two-part structure: 4- to 6-year-old children appear to draw strong connections (rather than distinctions) between physiological and social-emotional abilities (BODY and HEART), while clearly distinguishing such feelings from the perceptual-cognitive abilities of the MIND. Together with ongoing cross-cultural work, these findings have broad implications for the development of social and moral reasoning. More generally, the success of this approach highlights new possibilities for using bottom-up methods and analyses to build and refine testable theories of conceptual representation and change.