Learning words in space and time: Contrasting models of the suspicious coincidence effect

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In their 2007b Psychological Review paper, Xu and Tenenbaum found that early word learning follows the classic logic of the “suspicious coincidence effect:” when presented with a novel name (‘fep’) and three identical exemplars (three Labradors), word learners generalized novel names more narrowly than when presented with a single exemplar (one Labrador). Xu and Tenenbaum predicted the suspicious coincidence effect based on a Bayesian model of word learning and demonstrated that no other theory captured this effect. Recent empirical studies have revealed, however, that the effect is influenced by factors seemingly outside the purview of the Bayesian account. A process-based perspective correctly predicted that when exemplars are shown sequentially, the effect is eliminated or reversed (Spencer, Perone, Smith, & Samuelson, 2011). Here, we present a new, formal account of the suspicious coincidence effect using a generalization of a Dynamic Neural Field (DNF) model of word learning. The DNF model captures both the original finding and its reversal with sequential presentation. We compare the DNF model's performance with that of a more flexible version of the Bayesian model that allows both strong and weak sampling assumptions. Model comparison results show that the dynamic field account provides a better fit to the empirical data. We discuss the implications of the DNF model with respect to broader contrasts between Bayesian and process-level models.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104576
Early online date1 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


  • Bayesian model
  • Category hierarchy
  • Comparison
  • Dynamic field model
  • Word learning

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