Show or tell? Exploring when (and why) teaching with language outperforms demonstration

Theodore R. Sumers, Mark K. Ho, Robert D. Hawkins, Thomas L. Griffiths

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


People use a wide range of communicative acts across different modalities, from concrete demonstrations to abstract language. While these modalities are typically studied independently, we take a comparative approach and ask when and why one modality might outperform another. We present a series of real-time, multi-player experiments asking participants to teach concepts using either demonstrations or language. Our first experiment (N=416) asks when language might outperform demonstration. We manipulate the complexity of the concept being taught and find that language communicates complex concepts more effectively than demonstration. We then ask why language succeeds in this setting. We hypothesized that language allowed teachers to reference abstract object features (e.g., shapes and colors), while demonstration teachers could only provide concrete examples (specific positive or negative objects). To test this hypothesis, our second experiment (N=568) ablated object features from the teacher's interface. This manipulation severely impaired linguistic (but not demonstrative) teaching. Our findings suggest that language communicates complex concepts by directly transmitting abstract rules. In contrast, demonstrations transmit examples, requiring the learner to infer the rules.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105326
StatePublished - Mar 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


  • Abstraction
  • Communication
  • Demonstration
  • Language
  • Pedagogy


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