Inductive Pasta and Creativity

In the last few weeks, other than writing ethics applications (I can’t collect data without my department’s ethics committee approving my research), I’ve been knee-deep in the development of induction skills. This is a wide and respectable field of expertise, and I’m a far cry from being any kind of an expert. But I thought some of what I read would be interesting to the two people who are reading my blog (namely, my husband and his mother. Hey, guys :smile:).

Induction what we do when we generalize information from an example to a population. This process is well documented to be biased and irrational in adults. For example, let’s say you know 3 families, each have two kids – one boy and one girl. In each of the families the boy is very active and has a high energy level and likes to play with cars. In each family, the girl is low-key and likes to read books and play with dolls. You might use your induction skills to conclude that all boys are active and high-energy and that all girls like to play with dolls. While this is a great example of what induction is, you can imagine how your conclusion may soon be challenged.

A related skill to induction, and what is measured quite a bit as an indicator of inductive reasoning skills, is similarity judgement. It is assumed that similarity drives induction. That is, if two things are very similar then you are more likely to extrapolate from one to the other than you are if two things are not so similar. So you are more likely to generalize a certain character (for instance, “builds nests”) from a sparrow to a crow than you are to generalize the same character from a wasp to a crow. The topic of whether similarity judgements can be thought of as good measures of inductive reasoning is a topic for another post entirely.

Children are very good at induction, but they seem to have different rules than adults. For example, in an article I’m reading this week the authors report that children used labels to determine how similar two things are, but adults did not use the label information in their judgements (why it took them 22 pages to report this conclusion is beyond me, but that’s also a topic for another post).

This does not mean that you can take a broccoli and call it pasta and your kid will happily eat it. (Trust me, I tried. It worked when my son was about 1.5 years old, once. My daughter loves broccoli, so we don’t have that problem with her. Yet.) But what it does mean is that children use labels to help them decide if two things “go together” if they are similar. So, for instance, for quite a while my son was adamant that he does not like penne with chicken in white sauce, but that he loves spaghetti with meatballs in red sauce. Since mommy and daddy needed some variety (which seems to not be a requirement for kids at all), we started calling all of it pasta. It worked – after a while he agreed to the notion that it’s all pasta, and he tried some and liked it.

Why should parents care about inductions? Well, inductive reasoning is one of the main indicators of intelligence. We can argue about whether it’s a good indicator of intelligence, but if you’re looking at standard measures, inductive reasoning is one of the most common measures around. But more importantly, some researchers (and Steve Jobs) argue that being able to make connections between things that are not seemingly related is the underlying process of creativity. On the other hand, induction can be a very dangerous tool. Think, for instance, of generalizing characterizations from one person to another because they look the same (for instance, share the same gender or ethnicity). I think that the conclusion from all of this is that parents should be extra-careful in choosing the labels they use in front of their children.