How many observations is one generic worth?

AbstractGeneric language (e.g., “Birds fly”) conveys generalizations about categories and is essential for learning beyond our direct experience. The meaning of generic language is notoriously hard to specify, however (e.g., penguins don’t fly). Tessler and Goodman (2019) proposed a model for generics that is mathematically equivalent to Bayesian belief-updating based on a single pedagogical example, suggesting a deep connection between learning from experience and learning from language. Relatedly, Csibra and Shamsudheen (2015) argue that generics are inherently pedagogical, understood by infants as referring to a member of a kind. In two experiments with adults, we quantify the exchange-rate between generics and observations by relating their belief-updating capacity, varying both the number of observations and whether they are presented pedagogically or incidentally. We find generics convey stronger generalizations than single pedagogical observations (Expt. 1), even when the property is explicitly demarcated (Expt. 2). We suggest revisions to the vague quantifier model of generics that would allow it to accommodate this intriguing exchange-rate.

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