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J Psycholinguist Res. 2017 Jun;46(3):715-729. doi: 10.1007/s10936-016-9459-6.

The Paradox of Abstraction: Precision Versus Concreteness.

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Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University Of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA.
Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA.
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University Of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA.


We introduce a novel measure of abstractness based on the amount of information of a concept computed from its position in a semantic taxonomy. We refer to this measure as precision. We propose two alternative ways to measure precision, one based on the path length from a concept to the root of the taxonomic tree, and another one based on the number of direct and indirect descendants. Since more information implies greater processing load, we hypothesize that nouns higher in precision will have a processing disadvantage in a lexical decision task. We contrast precision to concreteness, a common measure of abstractness based on the proportion of sensory-based information associated with a concept. Since concreteness facilitates cognitive processing, we predict that while both concreteness and precision are measures of abstractness, they will have opposite effects on performance. In two studies we found empirical support for our hypothesis. Precision and concreteness had opposite effects on latency and accuracy in a lexical decision task, and these opposite effects were observable while controlling for word length, word frequency, affective content and semantic diversity. Our results support the view that concepts organization includes amodal semantic structures which are independent of sensory information. They also suggest that we should distinguish between sensory-based and amount-of-information-based abstractness.


Abstraction; Concreteness; Entropy; Information; Precision; WordNet

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