British Journal of Developmental Psychology

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Volume 20 Issue 1 (March 2002), Pages 1-156

Why do birds of a feather flock together? Developmental change in the use of multiple explanations: Intention, teleology and essentialism (pages 89-112)

In two studies, 6‐12‐year‐old children (Study 1: N = 58; Study 2: N = 38) and adults (Study 2: N = 22) rank ordered intentional, teleological and essentialist explanations for different behaviours of living‐kind groups representing a range of biological kinds from plants to humans. Overall, humans elicited more intentional explanations, insects and plants elicited more essentialist explanations, and intermediate taxa, such as ungulates, elicited more teleological explanations. Children made fewer fine‐grained taxonomic distinctions than adults, and the youngest children tended to reject essentialism. The 6‐7‐year‐old children preferred to reason about living‐kind behaviours from an intentional and teleological perspective; only towards the end of the elementary school years did children seem to incorporate a biological essentialism. Neither adults nor children were exclusively bound to a particular mode of explanation, but exercised ‘causal flexibility’ across different behavioural contexts.

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