UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 14 (2002)
The art of chicken sexing
Expert chick sexers are able to quickly and reliably determine the sex of day-old chicks on the basis of very subtle perceptual cues. They claim that in many cases they have no idea how they make their decisions. They just look at the rear end of a chick, and ‘see’ that it is either male or female. This is somewhat reminiscent of those expert chess players, often cited in the psychological literature, who can just ‘see’ what the next move should be; similar claims have been made for expert wine tasters and experts at medical diagnosis. All of these skills are hard-earned and not accessible to introspection.
But is there really anything unusual about the chicken sexer, the chess grand master, the wine buff or the medical expert? I argue that there is not. In fact, we are all constantly making categorizations of this sort: we are highly accurate at categorizing natural kinds, substances, artefacts, and so on. We do so quickly and subconsciously, and the process is completely inaccessible to introspection. The question is, why is it so difficult to acquire skills such as chicken sexing, when we automatically acquire the ability to categorize other objects. In this paper, I argue that we have mechanisms for learning the cues necessary for categorization, but that these mechanisms require selective attention to be given to the relevant features. We automatically acquire the ability to categorize certain objects because we have inbuilt attention directors causing us to attend to diagnostic cues. In cases such as chicken sexing, where we do not automatically develop categorization abilities, our inbuilt attention directors do not cause us to attend to diagnostic cues, and out attention therefore has to be drawn to these cues in another way, such as through training.