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Errors of all shapes and sizes

FEBRUARY 27, 2012
by Chloe Kowalski ’12, Contributing Writer

“See this?” Furman psychology major Sam Hunley asks. “This is a mando, and with mandos, we can do this.” He picks up a red, weirdly shaped, wooden block and easily presses it into a box that robotically replies, “That was easy.”

This simple demonstration is part of an elaborate senior thesis project in which Hunley has designed an experiment, is collecting data, and will eventually produce a manuscript that will be submitted to a scholarly publication.

His experiment is based on a common phenomenon occurring within 2-3-year-old children known as scale errors, where toddlers use an object in a way that is inappropriate to its size. The children are invariably drawn to shape as an object’s most salient aspect, trumping characteristics including texture, color and size.

“Kids aren’t born with a shape bias. It is something they invent on their own. The shape cues are very salient at the particular age of about 2-3 years old,” Erin Hahn, Hunley’s advisor, explained. “Shape is so important that it blocks out all other factors, including size.”

Hunley hopes this experiment will contribute to the overall collection of scientific data surrounding how children learn and develop by explaining why size is ignored in favor of an object’s shape.

Developing, setting up, and analyzing the data, in addition to conducting extensive literature research on the subject, are tasks generally reserved for graduate and Ph.D. candidates. However, Hunley’s work is a testament to the rigorous academic environment Furman fosters for students who seek to contribute beyond the extent of a typical undergraduate education.

Despite all of the work involved, Hunley’s greatest challenge has been to find participants. If you want to help, contact the Furman Psychology Department, or email Hunley at sam.hunley@furman.edu to reserve your 30- to 45-minute session.

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