Children may see the world even more differently compared to adults than previously thought, a new study found.

Researchers say that children are more likely to categorize things by characteristics and adults are more likely to sort things by linguistic labels.

Results of the new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, challenged the general theory that adults and children are similar in that they both use labels as category markers.

In a statement released by the Association for Psychological science, the study’s authors noted the difference.

“Our research suggests that very early in development labels are no different from other features,” said psychologist Vladimir M. Sloutsky, who wrote the study with Ohio State University colleague Wei Deng. “And the more salient features may completely overrule the label.”

In other words, children are shown an “oblong scaled, limbless swimming things and say it’s a dog” they would say that the thing is a fish. Adults would believe that it is a dog, and should bark and wag its tail, according to researchers.  For children, the label “dog” is no more important than scales or swimming, and the name of the thing is just another feature that is equally important as its other characteristics.

Researchers conducted two experiments to reach to their conclusion.

Scientists showed pictures of two imaginary creatures to preschoolers and college undergraduates.  Both animals had moving heads; the “flurp” was distinguished by a pink head moving up and down, whereas the “jalet” had a blue horizontally moving head.

The subjects then leaned to identify both a flurp and a jalet. Afterwards, experimenters changed some of the characteristics, but mostly kept the moving heads consistent and asked participants to fill in the label.

Both adults and children performed best when the moving head was consistent with the name, however when the bobbing head was like a jalet but its label was “flurp”, or vice-versa, most adults filled in the “label” as identification and children went with the head for identification. 

The children identified a thing with a jalet’s head as a jalet even though it was called a “flurp”.

Experimenters then tested participants again with familiar words instead of invented names.  Researchers called the animals “carrot eater” and “meat eater” and found the same results.

Researchers suggested that the findings could aid teaching and communicating with children.

“If saying something is a dog does not communicate what it is any more than saying it is brown, then labeling it is necessary but by no means sufficient for a child to understand,” Sloutsky said.

When we communicate with children, “we need to do more than just label things,” he added.