Scale errors – the power of culture


Scale error refers to the phenomenon that children try to use well known artifacts according to their intended function even if the size of the given exemplar makes it unsuitable for that purpose. Our findings demonstrate that scale errors occur at a higher frequency when function information was presented by a native, as opposed to a foreign speaking model, suggesting the role of culture in this phenomenon.

It is a common observation that 2-3-year-old children try to use well known, but inappropriately sized cultural artifacts according to their designated function. For instance, they try to sit into a matchbox car or slide down on a miniature slide, and these actions seem to be determined, serious attempts, they are not part of “pretend play”. What causes this strange phenomenon, called scale error? Although any physical object can be used in a wide range of ways and for many different purposes, culture poses very strong expectations about which object has to be used for which function. In our view, this strong prescriptive component of cultural knowledge leads to scale errors. If a child has learnt that spoons are for eating, than any object that she identifies as a spoon will be used for eating regardless of its physical inaptitude for doing so.

This notion can be tested in a function learning context. There are existing findings, amongst others from our own research group (see: function learning in the cultural space – the principle of mutual exclusivity) that show that children restrict learning cultural functions from people who belong to their own cultural group (e.g. native speakers). Consequently, if the use of a tool is demonstrated by a foreigner, that observation will not result in function learning, and will not evoke scale errors either. We tested this prediction in 3-year-old children. Participants observed as a native or a German speaker used a novel tool for achieving a goal, then they had the opportunity to reach that goal themselves. They had two tools to choose from, neither exactly the same as the one used by the model. There was a tool that looked the same, but was too large to obtain the goal successfully, and a tool that looked different but was suitable for goal achievement due to its size. Our findings show that the rate of scale errors (choosing the identical looking but too large tool) was indeed higher in the native condition. This indicates that the phenomenon of scale errors indeed originates from the prescriptive nature of cultural knowledge and humans’ strong motivation to belong to their cultural group


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