Skip to main content

The career of measurement

Cooperrider, K., & Gentner, D. (2019). The career of measurement. Cognition191, 103942.

Postdoc Kensy Cooperrider and co-director Dedre Gentner’s recently published article explores  measurement as a cognitive tool and the cultural evolution of the units used today. Historically, units of measure have embodied origins, whereas now, units are now more conceptually abstract.

“People in modern, industrialized societies are so accustomed to parsing the world in terms of quantified dimensions that it is tempting to see the idea of abstract units as self-evident. The evidence reviewed here suggests, on the contrary, that measurement units do not come easily, either in history or in child development. They are thus best considered products of cultural evolution. In important respects, measurement units are analogous to other powerful abstractions, such as numbers (Frank et al., 2008Gordon, 2004), spatial prepositions (Gentner et al., 2013Heine, 1997), cardinal direction terms (Brown, 1983), and maps (Uttal, 2000). Like these other concepts, units have decidedly down-to-earth origins, but have now become so abstract and so ubiquitous that it is easy to take them for granted and to forget they have a history at all. And, like these other abstractions, measurement units may be considered “cognitive tools” (Gentner, 2003Miller, 1989Norman, 1993), with potentially far-reaching cognitive consequences for the individuals and cultures that wield them.”