The Cognitive Lunch Shark Tank

Matt Jones (with a bit more head-hair and quite a lot more beard than in the picture on the linked page) gave a very interesting talk on generalization and categorization at this week’s cognitive lunch. He (with Todd Maddox [and others] I assume) has developed some interesting new experimental techniques and accompanying analyses that have, if you buy his arguments, produced some reasonably shocking new results. Not everyone at the talk seemed to buy his arguments.

IU is arguably the best place to study mathematical psychology, particularly if you are interested in categorization. If I’m remembering correctly, Jones cited three of the people attending the talk (John Kruschke, Rob Nosofsky, and Rob Goldstone), and his association with Maddox links him to F. Gregory Ashby, which in turn links him to Jim Townsend (which kind of links him to me, but not in any substantive way).

He didn’t cite them to kiss any asses, mind you. He cited them because their names are impossible to avoid if you’re going to discuss categorization. Their names are impossible to avoid in no small part because they’ve each put many years of effort into investigating categorization.

Without going into too much detail, Jones’ basic point was that, in a categorization task, you can analyze the effects of the immediately preceding trial on the current trial to investigate the role of inter-stimulus similarity in stimulus generalization and categorization. He discussed the effects of both the preceding stimulus, its structural relationship to the current stimulus, and, briefly, the feedback following the preceding stimulus on the probability of giving a particular response to the current stimulus. In setting things up at the beginning of the talk, he brought up some of the models that (some of) those present had developed. In discussing some of the results late in the talk, he brought up those models again in order to point out that they couldn’t account for the data he had observed.

Thus far in my career as a cognitive scientist at IU, I have attended cognitive lunch only intermittently. I do know, however, that moments like these offer the series’ most compelling, and, occasionally, most horrifying (to an up-and-coming scholar), moments. The speaker will make a claim, or gloss over an assumption, and before you know it, it’s a feeding frenzy. As many of these professors have been working with, and around, each other for many years, they can, on occasion, get pretty snippy with each other. And they do not often hesitate to disagree vociferously with, well, anyone in the room.

Today wasn’t bad. I’ve certainly seen worse. Jones dealt with the interruptions with aplomb (he’s seems to be very smart, is certainly well-versed in the field, and elicited a few laughs, although he talked too fast for much of the talk, as he was, in my opinion, a bit over ambitious in planning the presentation [he gets a load of bonus points from me for using a very stripped-down black-on-white slide template]). Criticisms and questions were pointed, but appropriate.

I hope things go as well for me in January. Perhaps the fact that I don’t study categorization will thin the herd a bit.

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