Simplicity and informativeness in semantic category systems

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Recent research has shown that semantic category systems, such as color and kinship terms, find an optimal balance between simplicity and informativeness. We argue that this situation arises through pressure for simplicity from learning and pressure for informativeness from communicative interaction,two distinct pressures that often (but not always) pull in opposite directions. Another account argues that learning might also act as a pressure for informativeness, that learners might be biased toward inferring informative systems. This results in two competing hypotheses about the human inductive bias. We formalize these competing hypotheses in a Bayesian iterated learning model in order to simulate what kinds of languages are expected to emerge under each. We then test this model experimentally to investigate whether learners’ biases, isolated from any communicative task, are better characterized as favoring simplicity or informativeness. We find strong evidence to support the simplicity account. Furthermore, we show how the application of a simplicity principle in learning can give the impression of a bias for informativeness, even when no such bias is present. Our findings suggest that semantic categories are learned through domain-general principles, negating the need to posit a domain-specific mechanism.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104289
Early online date5 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sept 2020

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • category learning
  • induction
  • informativeness
  • iterated learning
  • language evolution
  • simplicity


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