Systems of Category Learning. Fact or Fantasy?

Ben R. Newell, John C. Dunn, Michael Kalish

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Psychology abounds with vigorous debates about the need for one or more underlying mental processes or systems to explain empirical observations. The field of category learning provides an excellent exemplar. We present a critical examination of this field focusing on empirical, methodological, and mathematical modeling considerations. We review what is often presented as the "best evidence" for multiple systems of category learning and critique the evidence by considering three questions: (1) Are multiple-systems accounts the only viable explanations for reported effects? (2) Are the inferences sound logically and methodologically? (3) Are the mathematical models that can account for behavior sufficiently constrained, and are alternative (single-system) models applicable? We conclude that the evidence for multiple-systems accounts of category learning does not withstand such scrutiny. We end by discussing the varieties of explanation that can be offered for psychological phenomena and highlight why multiple-systems accounts often provide an illusory sense of scientific progress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)167-215
Number of pages49
JournalPsychology of Learning and Motivation - Advances in Research and Theory
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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