Joanna Korman and I have a new paper out in Cognition that examines statements such as “cars are for driving”. The statement is interesting, because people tend to accept it, though they reject statements such as “cars are for parking”, even though you park cars just as often as you drive them.
Such statements are called teleological generics — they’re generalizations that describe the function or purpose of some concept, such as cars. We developed a new theory of what makes them acceptable. The theory proposes that people mentally represent a privileged link called a “principled connection” between their concept of cars and their concept of driving.
Here’s the abstract of the paper:
Certain “generic” generalizations concern functions and purposes, e.g., cars are for driving. Some functional properties yield unacceptable teleological generics: for instance, cars are for parking seems false even though people park cars as often as they drive them. No theory of teleology in philosophy or psychology can explain what makes teleological generics acceptable. However, a recent theory (Prasada, 2017; Prasada & Dillingham, 2006; Prasada et al., 2013) argues that a certain type of mental representation – a “principled” connection between a kind and a property – licenses generic generalizations. The account predicts that people should accept teleological generics that describe kinds and properties linked by a principled connection. Under the analysis, car bears a principled connection to driving (a car’s primary purpose) and a non-principled connection to parking (an incidental consequence of driving). We report four experiments that tested and corroborated the theory’s predictions, and we describe a regression analysis that rules out alternative accounts. We conclude by showing how the theory we developed can serve as the foundation for a general theory of teleological thinking.
And here’s access to the OSF project (which includes a preprint):