Perception & Psychophysics

, Volume 50, Issue 2, pp 93–107

Human adults and human infants show a “perceptual magnet effect” for the prototypes of speech categories, monkeys do not

  • Patricia K. Kuhl

DOI: 10.3758/BF03212211

Cite this article as:
Kuhl, P.K. Perception & Psychophysics (1991) 50: 93. doi:10.3758/BF03212211


Many perceptual categories exhibit internal structure in which category prototypes play an important role. In the four experiments reported here, the internal structure of phonetic categories was explored in studies involving adults, infants, and monkeys. In Experiment 1, adults rated the category goodness of 64 variants of the vowel /i/ on a scale from 1 to 7. The results showed that there was a certain location in vowel space where listeners rated the /i/ vowels as best instances, or prototypes. The perceived goodness of Iii vowels declined systematically as stimuli were further removed from the prototypic Iii vowel. Experiment 2 went beyond this initial demonstration and examined the effect of speech prototypes on perception. Either the prototypic or a nonprototypic IM vowel was used as the referent stimulus and adults’ generalization to other members of the category was examined. Results showed that the typicality of the speech stimulus strongly affected perception. When the prototype of the category served as the referent vowel, there was significantly greater generalization to other /i/ vowels, relative to the situation in which the nonprototype served as the referent. The notion of aperceptual magnet was introduced. The prototype of the category functioned like a perceptual magnet for other category members; it assimilated neighboring stimuli, effectively pulling them toward the prototype. In Experiment 3, the ontogenetic origins of the perceptual magnet effect were explored by testing 6-month-old infants. The results showed that infants’ perception of vowels was also strongly affected by speech prototypes. Infants showed significantly greater generalization when the prototype of the vowel category served as the referent; moreover, their responses were highly correlated with those of adults. In Experiment 4, Rhesus monkeys were tested to examine whether or not the prototype’s magnet effect was unique to humans. The animals did not provide any evidence of speech prototypes; they did not exhibit the magnet effect. It is suggested that the internal organization of phonetic categories around prototypic members is an ontogenetically early, species-specific, aspect of the speech code

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Patricia K. Kuhl
    • 1
  1. 1.WJ-10, University of WashingtonSeattle

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