New theory of teleological generalizations in CogSci 2018

Joanna Korman will be presenting our theory on how people understand “teleological generalizations” at the next CogSci 2018 in Madison, WI later this year. Teleological generalizations are statements that cite the purpose or function of something, e.g., “Forks are for eating.” We sought to tackle the mystery of why some teleological generalizations make sense while others don’t: for example, “forks are for washing” seems like a silly generalization to make, even though you wash forks just as often as you eat with them (hopefully).

To preview our solution, here’s the abstract of the paper:

Certain generalizations are teleological, e.g., forks are for eating. But not all properties relevant to a particular concept permit teleological generalization. For instance, forks get washed roughly as often as they’re used for eating, yet the generalization, forks are for washing, might strike reasoners as unacceptable. What explains the discrepancy? A recent taxonomic theory of conceptual generalization (Prasada, 2017; Prasada & Dillingham, 2006; Prasada et al., 2013) argues that certain kinds of conceptual connections – known as “principled” connections – license generalizations, whereas associative, “statistical” connections license only probabilistic expectations. We apply this taxonomy to explain teleological generalization: it predicts that acceptable teleological generalizations concern concept-property pairs in which the concept bears a principled connection to a property. Under this analysis, the concept fork bears a principled connection to eating and a statistical connection to washing. Two experiments and a regression analysis tested and corroborated the predictions of the theory.

You can read the full paper here, and here are our data and analyses.