Article Review: Compliance, Conversion, and Category Induction by Vikram K. Jaswal, Olivia K. Lima, and Jenna E. Small

In the article titled Compliance, Conversion, and Category Induction authored by Vikram K. Jaswal, Olivia K. Lima, and Jenna E. Small, key insights into child psychology are attained. The research focuses on how children recognize and categorize external objects based on a pre-existing set of labels that they have learnt. For instance, when “children hear an object referred to with a label that is moderately discrepant from its appearance, they frequently make inferences about that object consistent with the label rather than its appearance”. (Jaswal, 2009) The implications of this finding are quite profound, for it alters the way developmental cognitive science is understood. Neuro-linguists have believed that the first five to seven years of a child’s life are vital to a proper development of the language faculty. And this study by Jaswal,, only goes on to confirm and add new dimension to this thesis.

In the experiments conducted by the research team, common objects familiar to children – such as tooth brush, toy car, key, cup, etc – are used in a way to create category confusion in their minds. For example, a pen which resembles a tooth brush, a shoe that resembles a toy car, a spoon that looks like a key, are exposed to children to challenge and contest their prior understanding of an object’s function and label. In these situations where children are presented with unexpected labels for familiar objects, the research team sought to find whether the participants actually believed the unexpected labels (thereby implying conversion) or whether “their inferences simply reflect a desire to comply with the considerable experimental demands of the induction task (i.e., compliance).” (Jaswal, 2009) Particularly, the experimenters were interested in whether these unexpected labels were passed onto others who were not present during the labeling event. And the results of this experiment threw light on aspects of child cognitive development and memory organization. It showed that while both conversion and compliance take place as children’s minds adjust to unexpected labels, the former event is more frequent and have greater influence on memory. The results further showed that

“Children made appearance-based inferences about the typical and hybrid items on 98% and 100% of trials, respectively. When E2 (experimenter no.2) later asked about the names of those items, children responded by providing labels that matched their appearances on 97% of the trials for the typical items and 100% for the hybrids. For example, children used both the typical key and the key-like object to start the car and later called both ‘‘keys,” and they used the typical spoon to eat cereal from the bowl and called it a ‘‘spoon.” (Jaswal, 2009)

This clearly illustrates that hybrid objects are identified as members of pre-existing categories in the mind. Even while hybrid objects carried features from two different categories, children were able to ‘convert’ them into the requisite category – namely the category that the object was designed to resemble the most.

The findings of this experiment helps psychologists understand how memory gets formed in children. Labeling of objects and cognitive processes that go behind the labeling eventually determine the ability of children to retain and recollect labels. Hence, when children learn something that is counterintuitive, they tend to misremember this information, leading to poor recall. This has ramification for instructional designers and educational psychologists as they try and device effective ways of transferring information in the classroom.
This inherent preference for conversion over compliance extends to early moral instruction received from parents and teachers too. That is, when children are taught about simple rules of right and wrong that constitute their early moral codes, they tend to fit and morph their external environment and evidence to the dictates of the rule or code. This tendency is part of how humans evolved and shows the importance of early parental/caretaker dependence for survival. In other words, those children who readily believed the words of their significant others during early years gave themselves a better chance of survival in a harsh/competitive eco-social environment. It is incidental whether the words and instructions they received were consistent with the already acquired set of labels. Another reason why children exhibit this tendency is because they intuitively identify from an early age that language is conventional. We should also remember that children are not entirely credulous. They do respond with skepticism if an adult says something that is “highly discrepant with their expectations, or if an adult expresses uncertainty about something that is moderately discrepant, or if an adult has been wrong in the past”. (Jaswal, 2009)


Vikram K. Jaswal, Olivia K. Lima, and Jenna E. Small, Compliance, Conversion and Category Inversion, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 102 (2009), p.182-195