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The abstractness effect: Abstract words have a processing advantage over concrete words

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The ability to communicate through language about abstract concepts lies at the heart of what it means to be human. It is, however, generally thought that this ability is secondary to, or dependent upon, the ability to use language to refer to concrete concepts. It is currently taken for granted that concrete words have an unconditional processing advantage over abstract words. This advantage is assumed to arise because concrete words are more imageable (Paivio, 1986) or have higher context availability (Schwanenflugel

and Shoben, 1983). In this talk I will present three lexical decision experiments and a series of large-scale regression analyses of lexical decision data from the English Lexicon Project (Balota, D.A. et al., 2007) which demonstrate that once imageability and context availability (as well as several other lexical and sub-lexical variables) are controlled for, it is abstract words that have an advantage over concrete words. I will further show (using both behavioural and electrophysiological data) how affect is crucially implicated in this advantage. Finally, I will discuss the implications of these findings for theories of the way in which abstract and concrete lexical knowledge is represented and processed.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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