Sandra Waxman

Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology | Professor of Cognitive Psychology


Sandra Waxman is a cognitive psychologist specializing in two key research areas: How language and cognitive development unfold from the first months of life and how children across cultures learn about the natural world. She holds a joint appointment in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Education and Social Policy.

Waxman’s recent cross-cultural work explores how notions of the natural world unfold—across development, across cultures, and across languages, exploring fundamental questions, including: What is the place of humans within the natural world? What does it mean to be “alive”? How do children across cultures develop these concepts? Her research in early linguistic and conceptual development employs both developmental and cross-linguistic designs, engaging infants from birth through the preschool years. Both are essential in discovering the origin of infants' early capacities, identifying which might be universal, and specifying how these are shaped by infants’ experience with their native language(s). Waxman’s research helps to unravel the basic mechanisms behind how we learn and to offer insights into promoting positive developmental outcomes in all children.

Waxman is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Psychological Association, Association for Psychological Science, and the Cognitive Science Society. In 2007, she received a James McKeen Cattell Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She co-founded Northwestern’s program in Culture, Language, and Cognition and is currently a founding executive committee member of Northwestern’s Institute for Innovations in Developmental Science (DevSci). She has been a research fellow of the Spencer Foundation and the National Academy of Education, a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Cognitive Science in Lyon, France, and a visiting professor at Harvard University and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. She was co-editor of the 2004 book Weaving a Lexicon, published by MIT Press, and she has been an associate editor of the journal Cognitive Psychology since 2005. In 2016, she became a consulting editor of Psychological Review. She is now inaugural co-editor of the Annual Review of Developmental Science

Current Research

Linking Early Linguistic and Conceptual Development. Waxman's primary research lab, the Project on Child Development, considers the acquisition of two fundamental human capacities—conceptual development and language development—and the relation between them in infants and toddlers. Waxman focuses on these capacities throughout the first two years of life, beginning with infants as young as 3 months of age. Adopting a cross-linguistic developmental perspective, her research involves infants and young children acquiring a range of different languages, including English, Mandarin, Korean, Spanish, French, and Italian. She shows that even before infants begin to speak, their language and cognitive advances are powerfully linked.

Children’s Developing Understanding of the Natural World.  Waxman examines the role of culture and associated epistemological orientations in the development of knowledge and reasoning about the natural world. Together with fellow Northwestern psychologist Doug Medin and colleagues at the National Research Council of Argentina (CONICET), they examine learning in very young children from Native American and non-Native communities. They have shown that cultural differences in conceptions of human-nature relations manifest not only in explicit knowledge, but also implicitly in practices. 

Selected Publications

Ferguson, B., E. Graf, and S. Waxman. Epub ahead of print. When veps cry: Two-year-olds efficiently learn novel words from linguistic contexts alone. Language Learning and Development

Perszyk, D., B. Ferguson, and S. Waxman. Epub ahead of print. Maturation constrains the effect of exposure in linking language and thought: Evidence from healthy preterm infantsDevelopmental Science.

Waxman, S., P. Herrmann, J. Woodring, and D. Medin. 2016. Humans (really) are animals: Picture-book reading influences five-year-old urban children’s construal of the relation between humans and non-human animals. In An open book: What and how young children learn from picture and story books, ed. J. S. Horst and C. Houston-Price, 127–34. Lausanne: Frontiers Media.

Taverna, A., D. Medin, and S. Waxman. 2016. "Inhabitants of the earth": Reasoning about folkbiological concepts in Wichi children and adultsEarly Education and Development 27(8): 1109–29. 

Waxman, S., X. Fu, B. Ferguson, K. Geraghty, E. Leddon, J. Liang, and M. Zhao. 2016. How early is infants’ attention to objects and actions shaped by culture? New evidence from 24-month-olds raised in the U.S. and ChinaFrontiers in Psychology: Cultural Psychology 7:97. 

Perszyk, D., and S. Waxman. 2016. Listening to the calls of the wild: The role of experience in linking language and cognition in young infants. Cognition 153: 175-181.

Ferguson, B., and S. Waxman. 2016. What the [beep]? Six-month-olds link novel communicative signals to meaning. Cognition 146: 185-189. 

Vouloumanos, A., and S. Waxman. 2014. Listen up! Speech is for thinking during infancy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(12): 642–46.

Bang, M., J. Alfonso, L. Faber, A. Marin, M. Marin, D. Medin, S. Waxman, and J. Woodring. 2014. Perspective taking in early childhood books: Implications for early science learningCultural Studies of Science Education.

Arunanchalam, S., and S. Waxman. 2014. Let’s see a boy and a balloon: Argument labels and syntactic frame in verb learning. Language Acquisition 22(2): 11731.

Ferguson, B., E. Graf, and S. Waxman. 2014. Infants use known verbs to learn novel nouns: Evidence from 15- and 19-month-olds. Cognition 131(1): 13946.

Waxman, S., P. Herrmann, J. Woodring, and D. Medin. 2014. Humans (really) are animals: Picture-book reading influences five-year-old urban children’s construal of the relation between humans and non-human animals. Frontiers in Developmental Psychology 5:172. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00172

Ferry, A., S. Hespos, and S. Waxman. 2013. Nonhuman primate vocalizations support categorization in very young human infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(38): 15231–5.

Waxman, S., X. Fu, S. Arunachalam, E. Leddon, K. Geraghty, and H. Song. 2013. Are nouns learned before verbs? Infants provide insight into a long-standing debateChild Development Perspectives 7(3): 155–9.

Callanan, M. and S. Waxman. 2013. Deficit or difference?  Interpreting diverse developmental pathsDevelopmental Psychology 49(1): 80–83. 

Waxman, S. 2012. Social categories are shaped by social experienceTrends in Cognitive Sciences 16(11): 531–32. 

Taverna, A., S. Waxman, D. Medin, and O. Peralta. 2012. Core-folkbiological concepts: New evidence from Wichí children and adultsJournal of Cognition and Culture 12(3-4): 339–58.

Unsworth, S. J., W. Levin, M. Bang, K. Washinawatok, S. Waxman, and D.L. Medin. 2012. Cultural differences in children's ecological reasoning and psychological closeness to nature: Evidence from Menominee and European-American childrenJournal of Cognition and Culture 12(1-2): 17–29.

C. Fennell and S. Waxman. 2010. What paradox? Referential cues allow for infant use of phonetic detail in word learningChild Development 81(5): 1376–83. 

Anggoro, F., D. Medin, and S. Waxman. 2010. Language and experience influence children’s biological induction.  Journal of Cognition and Culture 10:171–87.

Herrmann, P., S. Waxman, and D.L. Medin. 2010. Anthropocentrism is not the first step in children's reasoning about the natural worldProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(22): 9979–84. 

Ferry, A., S. Hespos, and S. Waxman. 2010. Categorization in 3- and 4-month-old infants: An advantage of words over tonesChild Development 81(2): 472–79.