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J Exp Anal Behav. 2010 Mar;93(2):225-45. doi: 10.1901/jeab.2010.93-225.

The contextually controlled, feature-mediated classification of symbols.

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The Zucker Hillside Hospital of the North Shore LIJ Health System, Glen Oaks, NY 11004, USA.


The classification of names of people or objects based on the features acquired by the names and the sorting instructions provided is a commonplace occurrence. For example, given the names Renoir, Pollock, James and Voltaire the average adult would be able to classify them differentially based on the instruction to classify them based on vocation or nationality. In general, such a repertoire reflects the reclassification of symbols (i.e, the names of individuals) in terms of contextual cues (instructions to sort by vocation or nationality) and the features acquired by the symbols (the specific nationalities and vocations). The present experiment studied this phenomenon with the use of arbitrary stimuli that did not have clear preexperimental associations. Two of 4 participants classified the symbols into different equivalence classes based on the prevailing contextual cues and the features that had been acquired by the symbols. Using an ABA reversal design we then demonstrated that 1 participant classified the symbols in accordance with the contextual cues and acquired features when present, but not in the absence of the contextual cues. A 3rd participant showed symbol classification that differed from that predicted by the procedures, and the 4th classified the symbols based on one set of features but not on context. These data describe one set of conditions that could account for the establishment of complex classification repertoires that occur in natural settings.


acquired features of symbols; college students; contextual control; hierarchical classification; keyboard responding; stimulus equivalence

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