Cognitive Daily

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWhen we first moved to the small suburban town we still live in, we quickly realized we needed to buy a second car. Nora and Jim were just one and two and a half years old, only barely beginning to understand language. After we made our purchase, sometimes we drove in the old car (a Subaru station wagon), and sometimes in the new car (a Plymouth minivan). Since neither child could pronounce words as complicated as “minivan,” they had to come up with their own way to refer to the vehicles. They called the Subaru the “red car” and the van the “blue car.”

But there were many other ways they could have referred to each vehicle. They could have said “new car” and “old car,” “big car” and “little car,” or even just “van” and “car.” Why did they refer to them by color?

Most research on young children’s word choice in ambiguous situations like this has focused on locating objects. Do you say the car is “on the driveway” or “outside the house”? This doesn’t address those other possibilities, such as size, shape, or color. One researcher, Graeme Halford, has speculated that children use the words which require simpler reasoning. “The dog is brown” requires simpler logic than “the dog is bigger than the cat.” Even more complex is a statement such as “The chair in the living room is softer than the chair in the dining room.” Similarly, while Jim and Nora had both learned colors, they hadn’t yet learned how to categorize station wagons and minivans. Any object which transported people around on streets was a “car.”

Although this explanation seems reasonable, no one had confirmed it experimentally until Jodie Plumert and Penney Nichols-Whitehead asked 3- and 4-year-olds to hide a tiny toy mouse in a dollhouse while a toy troll hid behind the house. The idea was to find out which words the children used to explain to the troll where to find the mouse. Here’s a picture of the house:


The house contained several large pieces of furniture, each accompanied by two small, nearly identical objects: hats, towels, bags, and so on. The objects differed only in color and in location: The hat with the blue ribbon was on the couch, while the hat with the red ribbon was next to the couch. If the mouse was hidden under the hat with the blue ribbon on the couch, how would young children explain where it was, and would their responses differ from adults? Here are the results:


As you can see, adults used location (“it’s under the hat on the couch”) to explain the where the mouse was hidden nearly every time — significantly more often than they used color. Meanwhile, three-year-olds used color significantly more often than location, while four-year-olds didn’t prefer one type of reference over the other.

Plumert and Nichols-Whitehead argue that the adults are taking into account the perspective of the seeker when giving directions — since location is more relevant to a seeker than color, adults give location information, even though it’s more complex than color.

Two more experiments demonstrated that children responded in a similar fashion when objects were a different size rather than a different color (a big hat and a small hat instead of a red hat and a blue hat) — preferring to reference a physical property of the object rather than its location.

In a final study, the two small objects where the mouse was hidden were identical in every way except location, so now the only way to explain how to find the mouse was by referring to its location. We know adults can perform this task, so the study was only conducted on children. Here are the results:


Both three- and four-year-olds rarely spontaneously used location to refer to the mouse’s hiding place. Even after being prompted by the experimenter, the three-year-olds referred to the objects’ location less than half the time, and four-year-olds did it less than 75 percent of the time.

This strongly suggests that the reason small children don’t use location to refer to objects is that the concept is too complex for them. Even though location would be more useful to a listener looking for an object, if kids struggle with the concept of location, then a location-based reference to the object is unlikely to be produced.

This is not to say that kids aren’t capable of understanding the needs of listeners. Studies have found, for example, that young children will use pointing and other gestures less frequently when explaining something to a person wearing a blindfold.

Plumert, J.M., Nichols-Whitehead, P. (2007). Developmental differences in preferences for using color, size, and location information to disambiguate hiding places. Journal of Cognitive Development, 8(4), 427-454. DOI: 10.1080/15248370701612977


  1. #1 Dave X
    January 22, 2008

    I have no background in developmental cognition, but I do have a 2.5 year old.

    I do think they understand location, in that they can know where things are and can point to or get them or lead a person to them, but I think location as an attribute of an object is hard, because it isn’t constant or strictly attached to the object: A thing is the same thing whether you put it on your head or if you stand on it. Location as an attribute of an object requires the interaction between at least two things, the object, and some frame of reference.

  2. #2 Derek James
    January 22, 2008

    I’m a little confused. On your first graph, the combined percentages for 3 year-olds sums to less than 100% and the combined percentages for adults sums to greater than 100%. Were there non-responses for 3 year-olds? And for a given trial, was a subject able to use both color and location (which would explain the >100%)?

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    January 22, 2008


    Yes, the respondents could have used both location and color at the same time, e.g. “the red hat on the couch.” That would get counted as one for each.

  4. #4 Sherri
    January 22, 2008

    I remember my daughter using color to distinguish things when she was three. The challenge was, sometimes those things were not ones that I would have thought of using color to distinguish. There were two nearby bookstores, and she would call one of them the “red bookstore” and the other the “purple bookstore.” Neither of the buildings was actually that color; I finally figured out that the signs for the stores had that color distinction.

  5. #5 chezjake
    January 22, 2008

    My not-quite two year old granddaughter was born in and lives in a home right next door to a firehouse. She’s been fascinated by the fire engines from early on. To her, any vehicle that is red is a fire truck, other colored vehicles are cars.

  6. #6 Sammy
    January 22, 2008

    My mom likes to tell me about how I found our (then) new car in a large parking lot (before the advent of car remotes on keychains). Rather than looking at the shape of the car, or the license plate, I apparently found it because I recognized the pattern of the lights on the back as red, yellow, orange, red (or something like that).

  7. #7 TomBergman
    January 23, 2008

    1.unambiguous: referentially unambiguous instructions that the subjects saw a puppet listener correctly carry out
    2.ambiguous instructions that the puppet explicitly identified as ambiguous and refused to try to carry out;
    3.closure: equally ambiguous instructions that the puppet also explicitly identified as ambiguous but nonetheless carried out, confidently asserting that he thought the speaker meant a specific 1 of the 2 equally possible referents. The younger, but not the older, subjects were influenced by the listener’s behavior as well as by the speaker’s: That is, they rated the closure instructions as clearer than the no-closure instructions, although less clear than the unambiguous ones. These results suggest that the growth of children’s knowledge about communication includes the developing awareness that, in communication situations like the above, an ambiguous message is intrinsically unclear and remains a poor message regardless of the listener’s response to it.

  8. #8 GMD
    January 23, 2008

    How then do you account for the cultural differences. Isn’t the simplicity of choosing color over size a construct of our visually-focused society? See some of Malcolm Gladwell’s comments about IQ.

  9. #9 Siamang
    January 23, 2008

    I think what may be happening is that the perceptions might be getting filtered before the child is aware of them. I think there’s kind of a developmentally-built simplicity here, keeping the child from getting too much input.

    (this is just me as a parent identifying what the process looks like to me).

    It also, contrarily, can be about efficiency in language. It’s easier to say “in the red bag” in any and all positions than it is to formulate a sentence that describes the location with such precision and economy. Children use the color as an incredible shorthand to get around deficiencies in vocabulary. No matter the situation, color is a valid discriptor, whether we’re trying to differentiate between a bookstar and a barnes and nobles, or between a ford mustang and a chevy cavalier. The world is a place full of descriptors that make no sense without years of being immersed in the culture… but colors are quickly at hand, and almost always work. Children may get used to using color, they may be so comfortable in using it that they may use it in plenty of circumstances where they actually HAVE the vocabulary.

    This would be a good avenue for further experiment.

  10. #10 Barn Owl
    January 23, 2008

    I remember my mom (who has a background in child psychology and developmental assessment) telling me that toddlers and preschoolers often make errors about the size of their own bodies, relative to the size of objects. For example, a toddler might attempt to step into a small toy car, or to put tiny doll shoes on his or her own feet. Similarly, a colleague of mine told me that her three-year-old daughter squeezed herself into a vest, sized for a 6-month-old, while shopping at a clothing store, and then got stuck in the garment when the zipper broke. To us, these errors seem comical (and at times annoying), but if there is a normal progression in the development of that type of spatial perception, then it might in part explain the use of color rather than location. Describing location requires some understanding or sense of relative distances and positions in space.

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