Prof. Gil Diesendruck is a Professor at the Department of Psychology and Head of the Language and Cognitive Development Lab. His research aims to uncover the cognitive mechanisms that allow children to make sense of the world, and focuses on two broad issues: social categorization, and the acquisition of culture.
Diesendruck and his group study how children conceive of different entities in the world, and to what extent these concepts are influenced by the culture or language to which children are exposed. A primary cognitive mechanism used to make sense of the world is categorization – the process by which people classify entities into groups of similar kinds, thus allowing them to treat entities of the same group in a similar way.
Diesendruck and his group investigate why children come to view certain social categories as defined by underlying essences. One of their main findings is that within Israel, the category of ethnicity is the most inductively powerful of all social categories. Interestingly, this seems to be the case primarily among religious Jewish Israeli children – as compared to secular Jewish and Muslim Arab children – and under a condition where the ethnic categories are labeled, as opposed to when only presented visually.
These findings support the notion that while children may have a predisposition to believe that essential social categories exist in the world, language and culture play a decisive role in pointing out to children which particular categories are to be treated that way.
Current projects in Language and Cognitive Development Lab examine how other factors may modulate children’s deployment of such an essentialist bias towards social groups (e.g., subtle linguistic cues, degree of contact with members of opposing ethnicity), how such a bias relates to children and adults’ attitudes towards members of different social groups, and the potential ontogenetic and phylogenetic origins of such a bias.
The second main area of research in Diesendruck’s lab examines how children’s developing cognitive capacities might help them acquire socially conveyed information. In particular, his group investigates how children’s sensitivity to other’s intentions, knowledge states, and behavioral consistencies help them acquire arbitrary and opaque cultural knowledge, such as the names and the functions of objects.
They found that 2-year-olds take into account whether an agent’s action was intentional or accidental when interpreting the agent’s verbal requests, and that 3-4 year-olds are sensitive to a speaker’s state of knowledge when inferring the meaning of words.
In order to become well-adapted individuals, children must learn how to navigate their particular cultural environment. This requires them to organize the social domain into coherent categories of people, and to acquire information that is relevant to their specific culture.
Diesendruck and his team investigate how children employ early-emerging, and potentially innate cognitive dispositions when they interact with particular cultural factors (e.g., language).
Diesendruck and his team found that children rely on various cues to derive hypotheses about the generality of the information they acquire. Namely, from early on, children show a nuanced assumption about the kinds of information that might be known by others.
Thus, 3-year-olds seem to assume that common object names – but not proper names – are conventional knowledge known by all speakers of a given language, 4-year-olds limit this assumption to speakers of their language. These findings intimate that children rely on their cognitive capacity to “read others’ minds” in order to acquire cultural information.
Diesendruck and his group are investigating the possible relationship between children’s social categorization and cultural acquisition. In particular, they are studying whether, and at what age, children discriminate between members of different social groups as potential sources of information, and whether they discriminate between the kinds of information they are willing to learn from members of different social groups or via different “teaching” cues.