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De chico jugaba en la plaza Colombia. Contacto: gusfai@gmail.com

Ownership, object history and endowment effect in 2 and 3 year olds – Gelman

Text #13

Gelman, S. a., Manczak, E. M., & Noles, N. S. (2012). The nonobvious basis of ownership: Preschool children trace the history and value of owned objects. Child Development, 83(5), 1732–1747. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01806.x

The paper presents two studies with 2 year-olds, 3 year-olds, and adults. The first study addresses the use of object history to determine ownership, while the second studies the endowment effect. The experimental design is very simple: assign objects (from certain object sets) to individuals, and then ask subjects a) which object belongs to whom, b) which object they like best.

1) Ownership is abstract… or nonobvious.

One a conceptual level, it is interesting that this paper emphasizes the fact that ownership is abstract. I have previously used that word, abstract, to refer to ownership in a recent paper of my own. But, actually, that’s not the word that Gelman et al. prefer to use when speaking of ownership; they describe it as nonobvious rather than abstract. Here’s what they say:

  • Ownership is of interest because it is a cognitive construction, not materially present in the owned object. As Snare (1972, p. 200) aptly stated, ‘‘[A] stolen apple doesn’t look any different from any other apple.’’
  • A mature concept of ownership includes an understanding that proximity, perceptual or functional features, and desirability, although potent factors, cannot by themselves determine who owns what. In other words, ownership is an invisible quality that can be traced by consideration of object history rather than by inspection of the properties of the object.

I don’t know why the talk about “nonobvious” rather than “abstract”. Abstract seems to be the common-sense word to describe invisible, relational features.

2) Object history.

In order to assess who owns what, human agents reconstruct the history of each individual object (“first I found it there, then I gave it to her, then she placed it in that red box… etc.). “Given the centrality of object history, it becomes particularly important to track where an object moves over time.”

“Experiment 1 demonstrates that 3-year-olds, like adults, construe ownership as a nonobvious property that does not reduce to outward perceptual or functional features”. “This doesn’t seem to be the case for 2-year-olds, who in certain experimental situations and with certain sets of objects do not seem to use object history in their ownership judgments.” “The present studies demonstrate that children as young as 3 years of age spontaneously attend to object history to determine ownership.”

3) Endowment effect

The authors claim that they are the first to demonstrate an endowment effect in children 2 and 3 years of age. “The present findings suggest that positive evaluation of and preference for one’s own possessions is a basic cognitive disposition, even before children have experience with conventional economic transactions.”

This is interesting. By the way, why do they say that the disposition to value one’s own stuff is “cognitive”? They call it a “cognitive disposition”. But you can make the case that such a basic way of being of humans and perhaps other species is not appropriately described as “cognitive”. We are dealing with something that is as emotional as it is cognitive. We value and defend what we are and what we have. This phenomenon (the endowment effect) might be linked even with territorial behaviors. I think there are deep existential, cultural and evolutionary motivations in this “will to possess” and to value what one has. The word “cognitive” would suggest a conceptual frame, an innate category, some “cold” rule or feature of our cognitive system. It’s not proved that that’s the best description of what’s going on here.

“Ownership confers special value on objects, across the life span. This finding extends beyond prior work in demonstrating that preference is for the particular object assigned (not just for that type of object).”

4) Endowment effect precedes object history tracking

“The most striking developmental change concerned the comparison between the two experiments. Three-year-olds and adults distinguish ownership from likability, reporting that they owned objects even when they did not like them (e.g., the participant-plain items). In contrast, 2-year-olds show no difference between the ownership task (Experiment 1) and the endowment task (Experiment 2). In other words, 2-year-olds conflate ownership with desirability, thus failing to grasp that a toy they do not like actually belongs to them.

5) Mutual exclusivity

“Participants showed a mutual exclusivity bias concerning ownership, rarely assigning an object to Zippy [a fictional character they introduced in some situations] that had already been assigned to another owner. Mutual exclusivity is a principle that young children adhere to in their word extensions (Markman, 1989; Markman, Wasow, & Hansen, 2003), and it is notable that this same principle applies outside the realm of labeling.”

One might speculate about mutual exclusivity as a common feature of ownership and language. Perhaps this is an innate rule or constraint of our cognitive system, that is applied to different domains as language and ownership? Or perhaps mutual exclusivity as a principle co-evolved with human society and the rules of ownership? There are theories that derive human’s symbolic functioning from social life, and in particular from the institution of ownership. Mutual exclusivity is essential for the institution of ownership: the very meaning of something being mine is that I, not you, control it; if something is mine it’s not yours. In order to claim something as your own, you need to put a mark on the object, or make a gesture, or use some other symbolic means, that might be at the very origin of the semiotic function in general and language in particular.

 

First arrival and land ownership

Text #12

Verkuyten, M., Sierksma, J., & Thijs, J. (2015). First arrival and owning the land: How children reason about ownership of territory. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 41, 58–64. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.11.007

This is an interesting and rare article on first arrival and land ownership.

The article raises interesting questions on the role of the “first arrival” principle in disputes about land ownership. “First arrival” to a land is in a sense analogous to first possession of objects. They study this topic with children between 9 and 12 years of age and their answer is that “children believe that a person owns a particular land relatively more when that person arrived first.” Furthermore, the first arriver is considered to own the land relatively more even when she did not work the land, compared to the later arriver who did work it. In judging ownership, first arrival even outweighs the laboring of the land of the later arriver. Thus the perceived possessory right of the first arriver is not fully transferred to someone who worked the land but did not arrive first.

“Being there first seems an important consideration for deciding who owns the land and has the right to control it. This corresponds to ‘historical right’ which in political theory refers to the right to a piece of land because of first occupancy (…), and to anthropological research that has demonstrated that people use notions of autochthony as self-evident reasons to (re-)claim land and rights in territorial and other disputes (…). First-comers to a new territory have historically claimed ownership of the respective territory and the belief of ‘we were here first’ tends to trigger self-evident notions of ownership and entitlements.”

Methodologically, the paper is questionable. The researchers use self-administered questionnaires to test children about many topics during a single session. They don’t interview children; they can’t ask for justifications or dig deeper into children’s reasoning. They call their research an “experiment” and I’m not sure it can be called one. The subjects are relatively old children (9 to 12 years of age), which is convenient if one wants children to self-administer the questionnaires.

I think it would be interesting to do a similar research but targeting younger children’s ideas on land ownership and, in general their territorial ideas and behaviors (present already at 2 years of age at least).

Levene et al. on ownership claims

Text #11

Levene, M., Starmans, C., & Friedman, O. (2015). Creation in judgments about the establishment of ownership. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 103–109. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2015.04.011

This is an essential paper for the field of the psychology of ownership.

Levene et al.’s study focuses on a fundamental topic. People come to own objects as result of specific actions, such as creating (or building) the object, discovering the object (thus being its first possessor), buying the object, etc. These are not mechanical or physical facts, but institutional acts performed inside a certain culture. The social norms and procedures that regulate ownership operate on a conceptual and linguistic level. In other words, human ownership it’s not just a matter of grabbing things, but also of arguing why something belongs to someone: “because I saw it first”, “because I made it myself”, “because dad gave it to me”, etc.

Now, such ownership claims can sometimes conflict. One person can say, “This is mine because I saw it first”, while another one can reply, “No, that is not yours, that is mine because I made it”. In such a case, which party has the most powerful argument? Perhaps some specific types of ownership claims are more decisive, fundamental or relevant than others. There might be a hierarchy of ownership principles according to which, in general, “creation” trumps “first possession” (or the other way around).

Some studies (both with children and with adults) have tried to clarify which ownership principles are usually acknowledged as the most relevant or decisive. There is a problem with such a task, though: it’s very hard to imagine situations in which principles are applied in a pure, uncontaminated manner. Rather, each principle tends to mix and confound itself with others, to some extent. For example, “creation typically implies prior possession and manipulation of the object, so it is difficult to be sure whether children’s ownership judgments were based on creation itself, rather than on these other factors”.

Levene et al.’s paper addresses these questions by means of four studies conducted with adults over the Internet. They use third person stories which involve some ingenious and novel ways of taking apart ownership principles in order to establish which one has precedence over the others. For example, in one story, a man throws paint at a board, thus creating a painting; while a second man picks the board. The first agent thus embodies pure creation (without possession) while the second embodies pure possession (without creation).

The authors conclude that creation is the most important and general principle, and that it affects people’s judgments of ownership more clearly than other competing principles such as first possession, invested labor or increases in the object’s value. “Creation trumps first possession as a mean of acquiring ownership”.

Another interesting implication of the paper is that they take apart creation and labor invested. I have always thought they were more or less the same. However, the act of creating something new (something that didn’t exist before this creative act) is related to, but can be distinguished from a) the idea of the thing to be created and b) the labor invested in the creation. Both the idea and the labor are essential for the creation, yet they are different from the creative act.

Children think that creative labor justifies ownership transfers (Kanngiesser)

Text #10

Kanngiesser, P., Gjersoe, N., & Hood, B. M. (2010). The effect of creative labor on property-ownership transfer by preschool children and adults. Psychological Science : A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21(9), 1236–1241.

Another important study by Kanngiesser.

Let me first paste the abstract:

“We investigated whether preschool children and adults believe that ownership of one person’s property is transferred to a second person following the second person’s investment of creative labor in that property. In our study, an experimenter and a participant borrowed modeling-clay objects from each other to mold into new objects. Participants were more likely to transfer ownership to the second individual after he or she invested creative labor in the object than after any other manipulations (holding the object, making small changes to it). This effect was significantly stronger in preschool children than in adults. Duration of manipulation had no effect on property-ownership transfer. Changes in the object’s identity acted only as a secondary cue for children. We conclude that ownership is transferred after an investment of creative labor and that determining property ownership may be an intuitive process that emerges in early childhood.”

First reflection: even though from our theoretical point of view we like to distinguish between things like “creation”, “discovery” or “transformation through the investment of labor”, maybe these are not too different from each other from the point of view of the child. That is, in all these cases, there is an agent that develops a purposeful and laborious activity on the object that is transformed as a result; and that is transformed into something that is either beautiful, or useful, or has value in some way. So children (and humans in general) understand that value is created through an agent’s activity. (This is Locke’s thesis, and it’s also part of our common sense). Once you think about it in these terms, it makes sense that children don’t pay attention to things like “duration of possession” or minor manipulations of the object; they don’t follow such mechanistic criteria, they look at transformations that make sense.

This paper, therefore, does not belong to the topic of “ownership transfer” but to the topic of “ownership claims”, in my opinion. If you take the duck and make an ashtray, you might say that the ownership of the play dough was transferred. But you can also say that you destroyed the duck and created an ashtray. You are the owner of the object you created (ownership principle).

“When asked to justify their property ownership decisions, 3-year-olds never mentioned creative labor, whereas 4-year-olds justified ownership transfers with explicit reference to creative investment. Moreover, we found that for children, the main component of creative labor was the invested effort, and the secondary component of creative labor was changing an object’s identity.” “We found that this transfer overruled an established bias to assign ownership to the individual who first possessed an object.”

“We found that children transferred ownership more frequently after making small changes to another person’s object than after possessing the same object, a result suggesting that children’s ownership judgments may even be finely calibrated to the amount of effort invested in an object.”

Creative labor has an effect on ownership judgments in adults, but the effect is less pronounced in adults than in children.

Kanngiesser on children’s application of the merit principle

Text #9

Kanngiesser, P., & Warneken, F. (2012). Young Children Consider Merit when Sharing Resources with Others. PLoS ONE, 7(8).

This is a great paper. It tackles the classic problem of merit as a principle of fairness (or of distributive justice): rewards should be distributed according to how much someone contributed to a task.

Kanngiesser and Warneken did two studies about children’s application of the merit principle. They made children play against a puppet at a game of collecting (“fishing”) coins that were later exchanged for rewards. They varied the work-contribution of both partners by manipulating how many coins each partner collected. Three- and five-year-olds kept, on average, significantly more stickers for themselves in the more-work condition than in the less-work condition. Children, in other words, kept fewer stickers in trials in which they had contributed less than in trials in which they had contributed more than the partner, showing that they took merit into account. Therefore, it seems that three- and five year- old children already use merit to share resources with others, even when sharing is costly for the child.

Although this appears to show that children take merit into account to calibrate their responses, it should also be noted that children almost never give away more than half of the stickers when the partner had worked more. “Even though children were clearly able to consider different work contributions, this tendency was constrained by a self-serving bias.” Thus, merit-based sharing is also mixed with or calibrated by the egotistic, self-serving bias documented by Rochat and many others.

The paper also presents a similar, second study, that shows that children’s sharing behavior is not just determined by their own absolute work-effort. Rather, children appear to take into account their own and their partner’s relative contributions when allocating resources. (Therefore, there  is some kind of elemental proportional or relational thinking here). “Young children can use comparisons between work-contribution to allocate resources.”

Esther Perel and ownership

Text #8

I’ve recently finished reading Esther Perel’s Mating in intimacy (Perel, 2006). What a great book. Highly recommended, not only to couples’ therapists or even psychotherapists. All psychologists should read it. Her view of relationships and particularly of sexuality in the contemporary world is really revolutionary. The only thing I don’t completely buy are her interventions in couples’ therapy: some of them sound as too theoretical, and I don’t think such verbal and general explanations can make people change. Usually, they just become rationalizations.

What does her book have to do with the stuff I discuss in this blog? Not much. But let me emphasize that I don’t consider ownership as only a social phenomenon that children need to learn about. In other words, I don’t consider ownership just as a topic within social cognition. (For example: how children develop heuristics to understand what belongs to whom). Ownership is not outside the child; ownership is not a source of input for children’s cognitive system. Not only, at least. The socio-cognitive approach reveals an important aspect of ownership, but not the most fundamental.

I’m rather interested in the experiential, existential side of it: why is it that humans need to possess stuff and to be acknowledged by others as legitimate owners; how do individuals clash with each other when competing for possession; how they become attached to their property. This is the kind of questions Rousseau used to ask, and that Rochat (Rochat, 2014) also tackles in his recent book on possession.

And Perel’s book does teach us something about it: that people can have a satisfactory sexual life only when they own it: when they own their bodies, their erotic imagination, their capacity to love.

Perel, E. (2006). Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. HarperCollins.

Rochat, P. (2014). Origins of Possession: Owning and Sharing in Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Movies used for our research on children’s understanding of theft

Here are the links to the movies shown to children:

Condition 1, control 1
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7-Tm2dFzk5jdG9PeHFXSW1iTmc/view?usp=sharing
Condition 1, control 2
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7-Tm2dFzk5jTXVZc2tsbTBFN2c/view?usp=sharing
Condition 2, control 1
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7-Tm2dFzk5jLVFoTmtTaFBrM1k/view?usp=sharing
Condition 2, control 2
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7-Tm2dFzk5jOWFadWFWUDlTdGs/view?usp=sharing

Warneken & Tomasello – Emergence of contingent reciprocity in young children

Paper #7

Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2013). The emergence of contingent reciprocity in young children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 116(2), 338–350.

This is another crucial study by Tomasello and his team. The researchers designed games to be played individually by the toddlers participating in the study. The child and the researcher would play in parallel, side by side. At some point the child would need more resources to continue playing and these would have to be provided by the researcher; later the researcher would lack resources and the child would have the opportunity to either help the researcher or defect. As the authors put it: “we gave 2- and 3-year-old children the opportunity to either help or share with a partner after that partner either had or had not previously helped or shared with the children. Previous helping did not influence children’s helping. In contrast, previous sharing by the partner led to greater sharing in 3-year-olds but not in 2-year-olds.”

These results do not support theories claiming either that reciprocity is fundamental to the origins of children’s prosocial behavior or that it is irrelevant. Instead, they support an account in which children’s prosocial behavior emerges spontaneously but is later mediated by reciprocity.

It is not until 3.5 years of age that children modulate their sharing contingent on the partner’s antecedent behavior. Children first develop prosocial tendencies (already present in babies or young toddlers) and later those tendencies become mediated by reciprocal strategies. Helping and sharing emerge before children begin to worry about direct reciprocity. Later in development, they seem to become more sensitive to reciprocity, adjusting their prosocial behavior accordingly.

Rossano & Tomasello: Children’s understanding of violations of property rights

Paper #6

Rossano, F., Rakoczy, H., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Young children’s understanding of violations of property rights. Cognition, 121(2), 219–227.

This is such a relevant and decisive article. From the very beginning it posits the all-important issue of ownership (about which we have talked repeatedly in this blog) in an extremely clear manner:

“Possession and property structure many, if not most, of our everyday interactions with objects. Young children (and even some animals) care about physical possession, and indeed many of children’s early conflicts with peers are over physical possession (…). By around 24 months, young children can reliably identify who possesses familiar objects (…), and their appropriate use of possessive language (“my milk’’, ‘‘mommy’s sock’’) suggests some nascent understanding even earlier than that.”

The authors then proceed to differentiate possession from property. Whereas possession has to do with physical control, property (or ownership) is a social an institution and, therefore, it is supported by social agreements to mutually recognize each person’s rights to possess things.

The authors also introduce a useful distinction between conditions of ownership (“under which conditions who owns what”) and implications of ownership (rights, commitments, entitlements). One my classify the existing literature and research on the development of ownership into studies that focus on conditions of ownership and studies that focus on implications of ownership.

In addition, the authors make the point that rules of ownership are supposed to have normative force in an agent-neutral way. This theoretical claim translates easily into an empirical claim: if children understand ownership rules as agent-neutral, they should protest transgressions against ownership when they affect a third party and not only when they affect their own interests.

How did they investigate whether children have this capacity? They used a three-party situation, involving the child, a puppet and an actor. The puppet was the agent that took either the child’s property or the actor’s property. The study found that 2 year olds protested when the puppet took their property or tried to throw it away; but 3 year olds protested also when the puppet took the actor’s property. The very fact that children protest such violation of property rights is supposed to involve an agent-neutral view of rules.

In the authors’ words: “Standing up for the property rights of a third party, using normative justifications on occasion, demonstrates (…) young children’s emerging understanding of the normative dimension of property as it applies to all persons equally in an agent-neutral manner. It is not just that I do not like it when someone takes or throws away an object that doesn’t belong to them; it is wrong.”

The authors conclude that, according to this study, by 3 years of age children understand the basic normative structure of property and property rights violations. This entails a basic understanding of institutional reality in Searle’s sense, and therefore of conventional norms and status functions. (This stick is a horse; this ball is mine; I’ve made a promise).

My only minor disagreement is that Tomasello sometimes refers to the institutional reality as “conventional”. I think one might distinguish between the moral domain, a conventional domain (arbitrary rules such as rules of etiquette) and legal or institutional norms that are neither moral nor conventional. Ownership, stealing, exchanges, contracts, membership, etc. all fall in this last category.

Nancekivell, Van de Vondervoort, & Friedman, 2013 – Children’s understanding of ownership

Paper #5

Nancekivell, S. E., Van de Vondervoort, J. W., & Friedman, O. (2013). Young Children’s Understanding of Ownership. Child Development Perspectives, 7(4), 243–247.

This is a nice and well written paper that reviews the state of the art in the study of ownership development in children.

I already knew most of the findings they present. But there is something new and interesting at the end of the paper, where they discuss children’s understanding of property rights. They make the point that property rights might be considered as an extension of personal rights and bodily rights. This is exactly what I argue at the end of my (unpublished) paper comparing Hegel’s philosophy and current research on ownership: we first take possession of our bodies, gain autonomy, differentiate ourselves from others (think of a two-year old saying “no” when he is told to go to the toilet or to take a bath), draw a limit between our body and other people, and then we extend this “ownership” of our own body and self to the objects we possess.

In the authors’ terms, “notions of ownership rights might stem from people’s appreciation of personal rights and bodily rights (…) children’s belief that owners are typically entitled to control their own property (ownership rights) might be linked with their awareness that people are typically entitled to control themselves (bodily rights). Hence, children may judge that using a stranger’s comb is impermissible for the same reason they would judge it impermissible to touch the stranger’s hair. The possibility that children’s notion of ownership rights is linked with their notions of bodily rights is also consistent with the possibility that their notions of ownership rights stem from their appreciation of the personal domain—the actions and choices people can decide for themselves, free from regulation by others (Nucci, 1981).”

And also: “Evidence for the view that ownership rights and bodily rights are connected comes from the finding that preschoolers reason similarly when making moral judgments in these two domains. Four-year-olds were presented with scenarios in which an agent acted on the body or property of an evaluator (e.g., a boy touched a girl’s hair or touched her doll), or on the agent’s own body or property. Children’s moral evaluations of the agent’s actions were influenced by the evaluator’s approval and by whether the target of the action belonged to the actor or the evaluator. However, their evaluations were not influenced by whether the target of the action was an object or body part. Hence, children’s evaluations of ownership violations apparently are not based on rules that apply specifically to owned objects. (Van de Vondervoort & Friedman, 2013).”

A fascinating topic. I wish I knew how to investigate that.

In-formed and co-formed thinking (Sinclaire-Harding, Miserez, Arcidiacono, Perret-Clermont)

Paper #4

Sinclaire-Harding, L., Miserez, C., Arcidiacono, F., & Perret-Clermont, A. N. (2011). Argumentation in the Piagetian clinical interview: A step further in dialogism. In M. B. Ligorio & M. Cesar (Eds.), The interplays between dialogical learning and dialogical self (pp. 1–45). IAP: Information Age Publications.

This is the fourth and last paper on argumentation by Perret-Clermont and her collaborators that we are going to discuss for the time being. Here the authors make a distinction between a) co-formed thinking, i.e. the type of thinking shaped by the desire to comply with relational and contextual expectations and norms, and b) in-formed thinking, i.e. the type of thinking shaped by the desire to voice one’s own identity as an authentic self and author, thus expressing original ideas, creativity and knowledge. This distinction is evidently inspired in the Piagetian distinction between autonomy and heteronomy.

The authors explain that the co-formed thinker tries to respond to expectations without critique, taking little responsibility, obedient and submissive, and sometimes excessively loyal to the obligations of the interlocutor, social group, or institutional context. The co-formed thinker is externally inspired, regulated, or governed by the values, beliefs and ideas of others.

The authors mention that phrases such as “I think that…”, or “Yes, but…” are usually markers that precede the expression of children’s independent opinion or ideas (in-formed thinking). Further, children feel they own such ideas. Of course, Sinclaire-Harding et al. do not seem to take the relationship of ownership as seriously and literally as I do. (As we have insisted elsewhere, I understand the discursive act of taking a position as rooted in the legal act of taking possession).

But the authors do not seem to be interested in argumentation in everyday life and in the context of institutional contexts and normative practices in general, but more narrowly in argumentation as an activity performed in knowledge-related tasks and with cognitive ends. Thus, although they include the social context of argumentation, argumentation itself seems to be essentially cognitive for the authors, and they aspire to improve educational contexts by implementing more participatory and democratic dynamics that favor in-formed thinking.

The article rightly emphasizes the affective aspect of argumentative exchanges. For example, the authors claim that when children feel their opinions are vulnerable, they frequently withdraw in order to protect their ideas and, ultimately, their self. (This might be connected with the ideas of Jack Ito, a rara avis about whom we’ll someday write in this blog).

In any case, the authors end up talking about how children need to defend their public self and manage their reputation, a topic that for some reason seems to be extremely important for Genevan authors (Rousseau, Rochat, and now Sinclaire-Harding et al.)

The authors also mention some interesting conceptual tensions, even paradoxes of argumentation. For example, an excessive desire to cooperate might make an individual want to agree with other members of her group and therefore boost co-formed thinking (which actually is the cancellation of thinking). Too much desire to argue may create too much competition between the interlocutors and end up in aggression and “war” (again: cancellation of thinking). So, for educational purposes, it seems important to calibrate how much to stimulate the collaborative and competitive kinds of argumentation.

 

Tartas, V., Baucal, A., & Perret-Clermont. (2010). Can you think with me? The social and cognitive conditions and the fruits of learning.

 

Paper #3

More about Perret-Clermont and argumentation. We briefly discuss here Tartas, V., Baucal, A., & Perret-Clermont. (2010). Can you think with me? The social and cognitive conditions and the fruits of learning. In C. Howe & K. Littletown (Eds.), Educational Dialogues: Understanding and Promoting Productive Interaction (pp. 64–82). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

This article tackles Perret-Clermont’s most typical and recurring question: how do socio-cognitive processes impact on learning? This question, once operationalized, becomes: How should one design experiments that detect and measure the impact of social interactions on learning? The authors then describe a set experiments structured in four phases: pre-test, adult training, joint activity (among two peers), post-test.

The results of these experiments seem to suggest that social interaction clearly affects learning, and that the defining factor that explains the amount and depth of progress is the quality of the interaction between participants during stage 2 and stage 3. Both interacting with an adult and interacting with a peer can produce progress; the child might benefit from interactions with an adult that scaffolds the situation for her, or from interactions with a peer that can be easily called into question and confronted with different points of view. In either case (child or adult) the key is whether the participants can express and exchange their opinions freely; more broadly, whether there is a secure environment that encourages children to explore the problem at hand as autonomous epistemic agents.  In consonance with Piaget’s early writings, the authors claim that a horizontal relationship between participants in which each agent shares her opinions and reasoning and respectfully questions the other’s points of view produces the best results in terms of knowledge acquisition.

“Learning and thinking”, they claim, “will then appear more clearly as the collaborative result of  autonomous minds confronting viewpoints and cultural artefacts (tools, semiotic  mediations, tasks, division of roles, etc.) and trying to manage differences, feedback and conflicts to pursue their activities.”

Nice article.

Perret-Clermont on knowledge-oriented argumentation

Paper #2

We continue with another article by Perret-Clermont and her collaborators, in this case: Perret-Clermont, A. N., Breux, S., Greco, S., & Miserez Caperos, C. (2014): Children and knowledge-oriented argumentation. Some notes for future research. In Language, reason and education. Studies in honor of Eddo Rigotti. Bern: Peter Lang.

The authors of this paper claim that classical studies of children’s argumentation over-emphasize the internal, cognitive aspect of argumentation while underestimating the role of the social context. Psychological research tends to neglect the interpersonal and institutional context in which psychological processes such as argumentation take place.

Of course, as it is obvious for the followers of this blog, I agree with the previous claims. I believe, however, that the authors should offer a clarification of what they understand by “institutions” (they don’t define the term in the paper). They seem to refer to social organizations such as school, family or research team. They seem to be concerned especially with school context, because they suggest it should be possible to design pedagogical interventions that are informed by the theory of argumentation (i.e., create more democratic schools in which students exchange reasoning and opinions freely).

I prefer to give the term “institution” a broader meaning (based on Searle’s theory, as I’ve explained elsewhere). This broader use involves treating “promises”, “ownership”, “barter” and other social practices as “institutions” and thus allows us to see institutionally-rooted argumentation everywhere in the daily life of children (not only in school while engaged in learning activities).

One interesting distinction the authors draw (although not explicitly enough) is that between competitive or adversarial argumentation and knowledge-oriented argumentation. You can find examples of the former in arenas such as politics and litigation. Competitive argumentation aims at proving one party right and the other wrong for whatever means; it’s about destroying the other’s arguments while making one’s own point of view triumph. In this scenario, one never doubts one’s own point of view (the position one wants to defend is a fixed premise). In other words: in competitive or adversarial argumentation there’s no win-win situation; for one party to win the other must lose (zero-sum result). This might involve, in some cases, launching psychological warfare aimed at undermining the other party self-confidence or destroying her emotionally.

Knowledge-oriented argumentation, by way of contrast, is not concerned with defending a fixed position. Rather, it’s about collaborating with others in order to discover something. In knowledge-oriented argumentation, we all work as a team in order to explore all possible points of view about a given topic. Thus children as well as adults have moving standpoints when they are engaged in knowledge-oriented argumentation.

I’m still thinking about these different dimensions of argumentation. One can either compete or collaborate with one’s interlocutor. Competition can play out rationally (one plays by the rules and respects the adversary) or brutally (one wants to win whatever it takes). Collaboration can also play out rationally (we explore all possible points of view and reasons together) or irrationally (we don’t want to diverge from the rest of the group so we just assent to whatever reasons they present while suppressing our own point of view).

Arcidiacono & Perret-Clermont (2010) – The Piagetian conservation-of-matter interview, revisited

Paper #1

In this paper, Arcidiacono & Perret-Clermont (2010) revisit the Piagetian conservation-of-matter interview in light of the theory of argumentation. The authors argue that children’s statements are co-constructed by them and their interviewers, within a specific institutional setting, i.e. the testing situation. While Piaget considered children’s statements as dependent on the cognitive level, Arcidiacono & Perret-Clermont describe children’s arguments as the result of a series of interactions with the tester and as a reaction to the tester’s framing of the interview. The authors claim that, during the Piagetian interview, adults’ interventions strongly influence the statements made by the child. Children’s thoughts do not show up as clear and distinct ideas; they are expressed in a specific social context.

This article contains a number of interesting reflections on the nature of children’s discourse within the Piagetian interview, but it leaves an important issue unresolved. Sometimes the authors seem simply to state that the specific interviewers that participated in the examples discussed did not meet the Piagetian standards for not interfering with children’s spontaneous thought and for not inducing the answers. Alternatively, they sometimes imply that the interviewers’ interference and suggestions are unavoidable because of the very nature of the Piagetian interview and of human communication in general. Which of these is the case for the authors is not clear. They claim, for example, that “the adult repeatedly diverged from the intentions of the Piagetian script and consequently induced answers to the child” and that Piaget’s intentions were “misunderstood” by the interviewers (which implies that the interviewers were not very good), and yet also claim that these diversions “might be an inevitable condition of the situation”.

In conclusion, the authors claim that, according to the Piagetian ideal, “the adult has to offer a real place for debating, so as to give epistemic agency to the child” yet they don’t make it clear whether this ideal can be achieved in the real world or not.