Categorization and reasoning among tree experts: Do all roads lead to Rome?

Douglas L. Medin*, Elizabeth B. Lynch, John D. Coley, Scott Atran

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

255 Scopus citations


To what degree do conceptual systems reflect universal patterns of featural covariation in the world (similarity) or universal organizing principles of mind, and to what degree do they reflect specific goals, theories, and beliefs of the categorizer? This question was addressed in experiments concerned with categorization and reasoning among different types of tree experts (e.g., taxonomists, landscape workers, parks maintenance personnel). The results show an intriguing pattern of similarities and differences. Differences in sorting between taxonomists and maintenance workers reflect differences in weighting of morphological features. Landscape workers, in contrast, sort trees into goal-derived categories based on utilitarian concerns. These sorting patterns carry over into category-based reasoning for the taxonomists and maintenance personnel but not the landscape workers. These generalizations interact with taxonomic rank and suggest that the genus (or folk generic) level is relatively and in some cases absolutely privileged. Implications of these findings for theories of categorization are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)49-96
Number of pages48
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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