Structure-Mapping Processes Enable Infants’ Learning Across Domains Including Language

Susan J. Hespos*, Erin Anderson, Dedre Gentner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

5 Scopus citations


Humans have an astounding ability to acquire new information. Like many other animals, we can learn by association and by perceptual generalization. However, unlike most other species, we also acquire new information by means of relational generalization and transfer. In this chapter, we explore the origins of a uniquely developed human capacity—our ability to learn relational abstractions through analogical comparison. We focus on whether and how infants can use analogical comparison to derive relational abstractions from examples. We frame our work in terms of structure-mapping theory, which has been fruitfully applied to analogical processing in children and adults. We find that young infants show two key signatures of structure mapping: first, relational abstraction is fostered by comparing alignable examples, and second, relational abstraction is hampered by the presence of highly salient objects. The studies we review make it clear that structure-mapping processes are evident in the first months of life, prior to much influence of language and culture. This finding suggests that infants are born with analogical processing mechanisms that allow them to learn relations through comparing examples. Turning to very early learning, we augmented our account by considering the nature of young infants’ encoding processes, leading to two counterintuitive predictions. First, we predicted that young infants (2–3 months old) would be better able to form a relational abstraction when given two alternating exemplars than when given six different exemplars (Anderson et al. Cognition 176:74–86, 2018). This is based on the assumption that young infants may initially focus on the individual objects and shift to noticing the relation between them after repetition of the exemplar (Casasola. Child Development 76(1):279–290, 2005a; Casasola. Developmental Psychology 41:183–192, 2005b). Second, we predicted that younger, but not older, infants would be able to form a relational abstraction from one repeated exemplar; this follows from the assumption that young infants have unstable encoding processes, so identical exemplars may be variably encoded (Anderson et al. 2019). Next, we revisited Premack’s insight from 1983 that the tasks used to measure analogical abilities (RMTS, MTS, and same/different discrimination) are vastly different from each other. The takeaway from this section is that while many species can learn through association and perceptual generalizations, there are relatively few species that can succeed in the same/different discrimination task. Of these species that can succeed in the same/different task, humans are unique in that they need fewer than 10 trials to learn such relations. In the final sections, we reviewed how structure mapping extends to language acquisition, artificial grammar learning, and physical reasoning. The value of investigating the origins of our analogical abilities is that we will be in a better position to understand how language and culture capitalize on cognitive abilities. More broadly, we can address whether essential differences between humans and other species are evident from the earliest points in development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationLanguage and Concept Acquisition from Infancy Through Childhood
Subtitle of host publicationLearning from Multiple Exemplars
PublisherSpringer International Publishing
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9783030355944
ISBN (Print)9783030355937
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • Infants
  • Looking-time task
  • Relational learning
  • Same/different discrimination
  • Structure mapping

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)
  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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