Research Projects

I am interested in how people construct representations of the world around them. In my work, I draw on the idea that intuitive theories are fundamental to our understandings of the world. I am drawn to questions such as: What is the content of our intuitive theories? How do they shape what we can learn? What structures them? How do they develop? And when do they lead to incorrect thinking? My work mainly focuses on preschoolers aged 3 to 7, and utilizes research methods from developmental science. You can read about how these ideas apply to my major projects below.

Children's Theories of Ownership

In a single day, a person sees thousands of objects. Ownership has a major influence on how these objects are perceived and interacted with. Conflict and debate over ownership has been known to incite both school-yard fights and international wars! Despite its clear importance, ownership has been a neglected topic in developmental psychology.

In my work, I examine the content of preschoolers' theories of ownership. I show that young children have rich intuitions about ownership (Nancekivell & Friedman, 2017, 2014a, 2014b; Nancekivell, Van de Vondervoort, & Friedman, 2013; Nancekivell, Friedman, & Gelman, in press). They recognize how property is acquired (Nancekivell & Friedman, 2014), and appreciate how ownership rights affect object use (Nancekivell & Friedman, 2014). For example, I show that by 4-years-old children appreciate that investment leads to owning, and that people are generally restricted from using others' objects. I am currently exploring how ownership influences what children can learn about others.

Project Collaborators: Dr. Ori Friedman, Dr. Susan Gelman

Intuitive Theories at the Museum

Although we know quite a bit about how children acquire scientific concepts from museum exhibits, we actually know very little about how they acquire non-scientific concepts from such settings. Reasoning and learning about non-scientific ideas related to moral, social, cultural, and historical domains is equally important for healthy human development.

In collaboration with the Waterloo Region Museum, I am investigating factors that influence young children's learning in a living history exhibit. In prior work, I studied how preschoolers reason about artifacts including their history, function, cultural background, and ownership (e.g., Nancekivell & Friedman, 2014; Weatherhead & Nancekivell, 2018), and biases governing how they explain events (e.g., Nancekivell & Friedman, 2017). This collaboration brings together both of these interests. I plan to expand my work by showing how explanatory biases, and young children's intuitive theories of artifacts interact to shape their learning of social and historical concepts at the museum.

Project Collaborators: Dr. Stephanie Denison

Beliefs (and Myths) about Learning

While working in learning and development at a local start-up, I discovered that incorrect thinking about the brain was common among the general public. This led me to study the appeal of neuromyths. My work focuses on one of the most prevalent myths about cognition -- the learning style myth. This myth suggests that individuals learn better when an educational setting matches their learning style (i.e., auditory, kinesthetic, and visual). It is endorsed by over 90% of the population!

My project explores the role of essentialism in the learning style myth (Nancekivell, Shah & Gelman, submitted). Essentialism leads to the belief that a trait is innately given, unalterable, and biologically instantiated. This project is the first to find variability in people's beliefs about learning styles. It finds that some people are more likely than others to view learning styles in an essentialist light (i.e., as having a biological essence that is unalterable by experience). In ongoing work, I am exploring the consequences of these beliefs for undergraduate student's success.

Project Collaborators: Dr. Susan Gelman, Dr. Priti Shah