How Are Concepts Formed?
What Are Concepts?
Concepts are mental categories used to group objects, events, information, etc. For example, despite the various available designs, brands, and unique structures of chairs, you know a chair when you see one. That is because you have a concept of what a chair is. Another example is the concept of clothes. Clothes may be in the form of a dress, a shirt, jeans, shorts, etc., and may be worn by different people, even by animals and toys. Despite these variations, you can easily identify which of the things you see around you are clothes and which are chairs. That is because you have clear concepts of what chairs and what clothes are supposed to be.
The Process of Concept Formation
Concepts are formed in two ways - according to its defining properties (classical model), and according to the typical characteristics of its members (prototype model). The classical model clearly defines a triangle as a geometric shape with three sides and 180 degrees interior angles. The prototype model, on the other hand, defines a concept according to the general characteristics of its members. The prototype model is particularly useful when not all the members share the same characteristics, only similar ones. For example, it is often difficult to think of whales and bats as mammals because most mammals walk on land. However, all of them have mammary glands, don't lay eggs, and have fur. The prototype model was proposed by Eleanor Rosch (1993) when she argued that membership in a concept is often graded according to how the members meet the defining characteristics of the prototype.
The Functions and Purpose of Concepts
We use concepts for different purposes:
- For generalizing information. We use concepts to generalize from membership patterns and relationships. To illustrate, suppose we don't have a concept for ball pens. Every time we see one, we would go through a lot of effort to know how it works, how to use it, and what it is for, similar to a baby seeing a ball pen for the first time.
- For making associations and discriminations. Some concepts are sub-concepts of a more general concept. For example, the general concept of a book has sub-concepts for novels, textbooks, dictionaries, etc. These sub-concepts are associated with each other in terms of the general concept of "book", but they are discriminated to different sub-concepts in such a way that you can distinguish them from each other.
- For speeding up memory. Suppose you're reading a fiction novel titled "All About Jamie". In the first paragraph, the author describes what Jamie looks like. Despite mentioning Jamie's name only once, and further using "she" to refer to her, you know that the paragraph is about Jamie because you have a concept of what pronouns are and how they are being used in a text.
- For guiding actions and behaviors. Your concept of food tells you what to eat; your concept of chair tells you where to sit; and, your concept of bed tells you where to sleep. Imagine if you don't have concepts for each of those; you would eat just about anything, and sit and sleep just about anywhere. An infant is an example of someone who has undeveloped concepts of food, chair, and bed.
Research Studies on Concepts
Psychological research on concepts reveal that how concepts are utilized influence the structure and organization of information in long-term memory (Ross, 2000); that we have concepts not only for things, but also for events (Zacks & Tversky, 2001); and that we can combine concepts to express new ideas, as with how we use noun-noun and adjective-noun combinations to expand language (Wisniewski, 2000).
Expertise in Concept Formation
Experts and novices differ into how they form concepts. Primarily because experts have identified large number of associations and discriminations between sub-concepts and major concepts, they can easily spot differences and grasp patterns and relationships in complicated rules and intricate features.