The representation of abstract words: why emotion matters

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2011 Feb;140(1):14-34. doi: 10.1037/a0021446.


Although much is known about the representation and processing of concrete concepts, knowledge of what abstract semantics might be is severely limited. In this article we first address the adequacy of the 2 dominant accounts (dual coding theory and the context availability model) put forward in order to explain representation and processing differences between concrete and abstract words. We find that neither proposal can account for experimental findings and that this is, at least partly, because abstract words are considered to be unrelated to experiential information in both of these accounts. We then address a particular type of experiential information, emotional content, and demonstrate that it plays a crucial role in the processing and representation of abstract concepts: Statistically, abstract words are more emotionally valenced than are concrete words, and this accounts for a residual latency advantage for abstract words, when variables such as imageability (a construct derived from dual coding theory) and rated context availability are held constant. We conclude with a discussion of our novel hypothesis for embodied abstract semantics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology
  • Association
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Concept Formation / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Semantics*
  • Young Adult