Learn locally, think globally: Exemplar variability supports higher-order generalization and word learning

Lynn K. Perry, Larissa K. Samuelson, Lisa M. Malloy, Ryan N. Schiffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

116 Scopus citations


Research suggests that variability of exemplars supports successful object categorization; however, the scope of variability's support at the level of higher-order generalization remains unexplored. Using a longitudinal study, we examined the role of exemplar variability in first- and second-order generalization in the context of nominal-category learning at an early age. Sixteen 18-month-old children were taught 12 categories. Half of the children were taught with sets of highly similar exemplars; the other half were taught with sets of dissimilar, variable exemplars. Participants' learning and generalization of trained labels and their development of more general word-learning biases were tested. All children were found to have learned labels for trained exemplars, but children trained with variable exemplars generalized to novel exemplars of these categories, developed a discriminating word-learning bias generalizing labels of novel solid objects by shape and labels of nonsolid objects by material, and accelerated in vocabulary acquisition. These findings demonstrate that object variability leads to better abstraction of individual and global category organization, which increases learning outside the laboratory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1894-1902
Number of pages9
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • cognitive development
  • language development
  • learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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