When their understanding of the basics of bicycle design was assessed objectively, people were found to make frequent and serious mistakes, such as believing that the chain went around the front wheel as well as the back wheel. Errors were reduced but not eliminated for bicycle experts, for men more than women, and for people who were shown a real bicycle as they were tested. The results demonstrate that most people’s conceptual understanding of this familiar, everyday object is sketchy and shallow, even for information that is frequently encountered and easily perceived. This evidence of a minimal and even inaccurate causal understanding is inconsistent with that of strong versions of explanation-based (or theory-based) theories of categorization.
Ahn, W.-K., &Luhmann, C. C. (2005). Demystifying theory-based categorization. In L. Gershkoff-Stowe & D. H. Rakison (Eds.),Building object categories in developmental time: Carnegie Mellon Symposia on cognition (pp. 277–300). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bertamini, M., Spooner, A., &Hecht, H. (2003). Naive optics: Predicting and perceiving reflections in mirrors.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,29, 982–1002.
Brewer, W. F., Chinn, C. A., &Samarapungavan, A. (1998). Explanation in scientists and children.Minds & Machines,8, 119–136.
Carey, S. (1985).Conceptual change in childhood. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chaigneau, S. E., Barsalou, L. W., &Sloman, S. A. (2004). Assessing the causal structure of function.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,133, 601–625.
Crowley, K., Callanan, M. A., Tenenbaum, H. R., &Allen, E. (2001). Parents explain more often to boys than to girls during shared scientific thinking.Psychological Science,12, 258–261.
Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., &Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence.Current Directions in Psychological Science,12, 83–87.
Fajans, J. (2000). Steering in bicycles and motorcycles.American Journal of Physics,68, 654–659.
Johnson, K. E., Alexander, J. M., Spencer, S., Leibham, M. E., &Neitzel, C. (2004). Factors associated with the early emergence of intense interests within conceptual domains.Cognitive Development,19, 325–343.
Jones, D. E. H. (1970). The stability of the bicycle.Physics Today,23, 34–40.
Kaiser, M. K., Proffitt, D. R., Whelan, S. M., &Hecht, H. (1992). Influence of animation on dynamical judgments.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,18, 669–689.
Kaplan, A. S., &Murphy, G. L. (2000). Category learning with minimal prior knowledge.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,26, 829–846.
Keil, F. C. (1989).Concepts, kinds, and cognitive development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Keil, F. C. (2003a). Categorisation, causation, and the limits of understanding.Language & Cognitive Processes,18, 663–692.
Keil, F. C. (2003b). Folkscience: Coarse interpretations of a complex reality.Trends in Cognitive Sciences,7, 368–373.
Kirshner, D. (1980). Some nonexplanations of bicycle stability.American Journal of Physics,48, 36–38.
Leiser, D. (2001). Scattered naive theories: Why the human mind is isomorphic to the Internet web.New Ideas in Psychology,19, 175–202.
Lin, E. L., &Murphy, G. L. (1997). Effects of background knowledge on object categorization and part detection.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,23, 1153–1169.
Mabe, P. A., III, &West, S. G. (1982). Validity of self-evaluation of ability: A review and meta-analysis.Journal of Applied Psychology,67, 280–296.
Marmie, W. R., &Healy, A. F. (2004). Memory for common objects: Brief intentional study is sufficient to overcome poor recall of US coin features.Applied Cognitive Psychology,18, 445–453.
Martin, M., &Jones, G. V. (1998). Generalizing everyday memory: Signs and handedness.Memory & Cognition,26, 193–200.
Mills, C. M., &Keil, F. C. (2004). Knowing the limits of one’s understanding: The development of an awareness of an illusion of explanatory depth.Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,87, 1–32.
Murphy, G. L. (2002).The big book of concepts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Murphy, G. L., &Medin, D. L. (1985). The role of theories in conceptual coherence.Psychological Review,92, 289–316.
Nickerson, R. S., &Adams, M. J. (1979). Long-term memory for a common object.Cognitive Psychology,11, 287–307.
Nobes, G., Martin, A. E., &Panagiotaki, G. (2005). The development of scientific knowledge of the Earth.British Journal of Developmental Psychology,23, 47–64.
Norman, D. A. (2002).The design of everyday things. New York: Basic Books.
O’Regan, J. K. (1992). Solving the “real” mysteries of visual perception: The world as an outside memory.Canadian Journal of Psychology,46, 461–488.
Palmeri, T. J., &Blalock, C. (2000). The role of background knowledge in speeded perceptual categorization.Cognition,77, B45-B57.
Pazzani, M. J. (1991). Influence of prior knowledge on concept acquisition: Experimental and computational results.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,17, 416–432.
Proffitt, D. R., Kaiser, M. K., &Whelan, S. M. (1990). Understanding wheel dynamics.Cognitive Psychology,22, 342–373.
Rinck, M. (1999). Memory for everyday objects: Where are the digits on numerical keypads?Applied Cognitive Psychology,13, 329–350.
Robert, M., &Harel, F. (1996). The gender difference in orienting liquid surfaces and plumb-lines: Its robustness, its correlates, and the associated knowledge of simple physics.Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology,50, 280–314.
Rohrer, D. (2003). The natural appearance of unnatural incline speed.Memory & Cognition,31, 816–826.
Rozenblit, L., &Keil, F. [C.] (2002). The misunderstood limits of folk science: An illusion of explanatory depth.Cognitive Science,26, 521–562.
Smith, E. E., &Sloman, S. A. (1994). Similarity- versus rule-based categorization.Memory & Cognition,22, 377–386.
Wilson, R. A., &Keil, F. C. (2000). The shadows and shallows of explanation. In F. C. Keil & R. A. Wilson (Eds.),Explanation and cognition (pp. 87–114). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Wisniewski, E. J. (1995). Prior knowledge and functionally relevant features in concept learning.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,21, 449–468.
This research was supported by Grant RES-000-27-0162 from the Economic and Social Research Council.
About this article
Cite this article
Lawson, R. The science of cycology: Failures to understand how everyday objects work. Memory & Cognition 34, 1667–1675 (2006). https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03195929
- Conceptual Knowledge
- Front Wheel
- Everyday Object
- Causal Information
- Apply Cognitive Psychology