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Behavioral Evidence for Differences in Social and Non-Social Category Learning

Frontiers in Psychology
Frontiers Media SA
Publication Date
DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00291
  • Psychology
  • Original Research


When meeting someone for the very first time one spontaneously categorizes the seen person on the basis of his/her appearance. Categorization is based on the association between some physical features and category labels that can be social (character trait…) or non-social (tall, thin). Surprisingly little is known about how such associations are formed, particularly in the social domain. Here, we aimed at testing whether social and non-social category learning may be dissociated. We presented subjects with a large number of faces that had to be rated according to social or non-social labels, and induced an association between a facial feature (inter-eye distance) and the category labels using two different procedures. In a first experiment, we used a feedback procedure to reinforce the association; behavioral measures revealed an association between the physical feature manipulated and abstract non-social categories, while no evidence for an association with social labels could be found. In a second experiment, we used passive exposure to the association between physical features and labels; we obtained behavioral evidence for learning of both social and non-social categories. These results support the view of the specificity of social category learning; they suggest that social categories are best acquired through unsupervised procedures that can be considered as a simplified proxy for group transmission.

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