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Effects of context on processing emotionally neutral abstract and concrete concepts.

The abstractness effect describes the phenomenon of individuals responding to abstract words (e.g., sovereignty) more rapidly and accurately than they do to concrete words (e.g., desk) during concept processing, as opposed to the concreteness effect, whereby individuals process concrete words more rapidly and accurately than they do abstract words. Many scholars have reported the existence of a concreteness effect (Dalla Volta, Fabbri-Destro, Gentilucci, & Avanzini, 2014; Newcombe, Campbell, Siakaluk, & Pexman, 2012; Palazova, Sommer, & Schacht, 2013; Yu & Yan, 2011). However, it cannot be ignored that in some studies researchers have found the abstractness effect as opposed to the concreteness effect (Barber, Otten, Kousta, & Vigliocco, 2013; Kauschke, Nutsch, & Schrauf, 2012; Kousta, Vigliocco, Vinson, Andrews, & Del Campo, 2011; Palazova et al., 2013; Wang & Yao, 2012).

The process of the concreteness effect is supported by both dual coding theory and the context-availability model. In dual coding theory, it is proposed that the coding scheme for concepts is advantageous for concrete concept processing (Paivio, 1991). In the brain, abstract concepts can be represented only with linguistic coding, whereas concrete concepts can be represented by both verbal coding and image coding. Therefore, during concept processing, words that represent concrete concepts are easier to remember than are words that represent abstract concepts. A concrete concept is easier to comprehend visually than an abstract concept because it has greater figurativeness.

In the context-availability model, a single semantic system is proposed to explain the concreteness effect (Schwanenflugel, Harnishfeger, & Stowe, 1988). According to the model, contextual factors account for the processing advantage of concrete concepts. Context can refer to a number of variables, such as the previous chapter of a book or one's understanding of existing knowledge--namely, semantic memory. Because concrete words have stronger and more extensive associations with the data stored in semantic memory than abstract words do, concrete words have closer connections with relevant contextual knowledge. However, if an abstract word is placed in a certain external context to overcome the cognitive deficits of its internal context, the processing of that abstract word will be faster.

The abstractness effect observed in experimental research has been explained by Vigliocco and her colleagues from the perspective of embodied cognition theory using a three-component model consisting of sensory-motor information, emotional information, and linguistic information (Kousta et al., 2011; Vigliocco, Meteyard, Andrews, & Kousta, 2009). In embodied cognition theory, it is proposed that model simulation, the physical state, and situational action jointly affect an individual's perception, and that cognitive processing involves the partial activation of the brain's sensory, motor, and emotional systems to form a mental representation of a concept (Barsalou, 2009). Vigliocco et al. (2009) described how the statistical preponderance of sensory-motor information supports the meaning of concrete concepts, whereas the statistical preponderance of emotional information and language information supports the meaning of abstract concepts. Thus, according to the theory, the abstractness effect is attributable to the advantageous influence of emotional and linguistic information.

Findings reported in a series of experiments support the role of emotional information in the processing advantage of abstract words (Barber et al., 2013; Kauschke et al., 2012; Palazova et al., 2013; Vigliocco et al., 2014). There are a few studies on the abstractness effect from the perspective of linguistic feature information of verbal associations established by the resonance model and syntax information (Chiarelli, El Yagoubi, Mondini, Bisiacchi, & Semenza, 2011; Scorolli et al., 2011). However, in the experimental evidence used to explain the abstractness effect scholars have neglected to exclude emotional information from the facilitating effects of linguistic information. The linguistic information described in the three-component model should not be limited to statistical-model factors and syntactic structural information, but, similar to the context-availability model, should also include context. However, analysis of the role of context in the context-availability model and the three-component model yield different predictions. According to the context-availability model, the processing of abstract words that are presented in the context of a sentence should be faster than the processing of such words presented independently because a sentence provides external contextual information that the abstract words lack when they stand alone. Hence, there should be no difference in processing time between concrete words and abstract words when they are presented in sentences because there should no longer be a concreteness effect. According to the three-component model, because linguistic information facilitates the processing of abstract words, when they are processed in a sentence, not only should the concreteness effect not occur, the abstractness effect should occur.

Therefore, we expected that the control of emotional information would be achieved by processing neutral words. Accordingly, we proposed the following three hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: The concreteness effect will occur in both word and sentence contexts when processing emotionally neutral information.

Hypothesis 2: The concreteness effect will occur in the word context, and neither the concreteness nor the abstractness effects will occur in the sentence context when processing emotionally neutral information.

Hypothesis 3: The concreteness effect will occur in the word context, and the abstractness effect will occur only in the sentence context when processing emotionally neutral information.

If the dual coding theory is applicable, because concrete words are processed in both systems, Hypothesis 1 would be supported. If the context-availability theory is applicable, because the internal context information of abstract words is compensated for by external context information, Hypothesis 2 will be supported. If the three-component hypothesis is applicable, because concrete and abstract words have different processing advantages, Hypothesis 3 will be supported.



We selected 49 students from Nantong University by convenience sampling to participate in the experiment. They were paid US$2 for taking part in the study. We discarded the data from six participants for reasons explained in the Data Analysis section, so the data from 43 participants were included in the analyses (22 men and 21 women, [M.sub.age] = 21.67 years, SD = 1.49). All participants were right-handed, had normal or corrected-to-normal vision, and reported that they had never had any psychiatric medical conditions during their lifetime.


Characteristics of neutral words, including lexical valence, lexical arousal, lexical dominance, and word frequency, were selected from the pilot affective Chinese words system developed by Wang, Zhou, and Luo (2008), and from the Modern Chinese Frequency Dictionary (Institute of Language Teaching in Beijing Language and Culture College, 1986). Concreteness and familiarity of the words were assessed by 124 students, and valence and meaningfulness of the corresponding sentences were assessed by 35 students. The materials selected for the study consisted of 24 concrete and 24 abstract nouns embedded in 24 sentences (see Appendix).

A t test was conducted for each of the selected items. There was no significant difference in the words' characteristics, except their lexical concreteness (p < .001). Concrete and abstract words, and corresponding sentences were randomly divided into two parts that we labeled as C11 and C12 (concrete groups) and A21 and A22 (abstract groups). There were no significant differences in characteristics between the two sets of materials. We assigned participants to either M1 (words in the C11 and A22 groups; sentences in the C12 and A21 groups) or M2 (words in the C12 and A21 groups; sentences in the C11 and A22 groups), and the p value for both groups was > .05, indicating that the experimental material was balanced. In addition, we selected and used 24 separately presented pseudowords and 24 meaningless sentences as experimental interference material.


To test our hypotheses, we used a 2 (context: word context vs. sentence context) x 2 (target word concreteness: concrete vs. abstract) within-subjects experimental design. The dependent variable was the reaction times of the participants during lexical decision tasks. All participants performed a lexical decision task in the word context, and then in the context of a sentence. The trial procedure in word context was as follows: The fixation "+" appeared in the center of a computer screen for 500 ms, followed by a blank screen for 200 ms, then a word was presented. The participants were required to decide if the word was a true word or a pseudoword, and then to press the key corresponding to the correct category with their right index finger. If the word was a true word, they pressed the left arrow key with their right index finger; if it was a pseudo word, they pressed the right arrow key with their right index finger. The word was then replaced by a blank screen for 500 ms until the participant made a response or 3,000 ms had passed. The interval between each of the trials randomly ranged from 1,000 to 2,000 ms. The experimental screen had a gray background, and the words were white with a 48 SimSun typeface or 72 Times New Roman.

In the sentence context, we used a word-for-word masking paradigm with the moving window technique. First, after the fixation "+" was shown for 500 ms, a sentence was presented one phrase at a time, with each phrase of the sentence lasting 500 ms, before being replaced by a small horizontal line "-" that had an equal number of phrase for 500 ms, and the word that was to be read was presented at the next position. For example, for the sentence: "There are a lot of prime ministers in the world," the next screen was "--a lot of-----." The sentence disappeared after the participant finished reading it, and only the period was shown at the right of the screen. The participants were asked to make a "quick, accurate" judgment about the last word of the sentence, and pressed the key corresponding to the correct answer with their right index finger. If the word was a true word, they pressed the left arrow key with their right index finger; if it was a pseudoword, they pressed the right arrow key with their right index finger. The period disappeared if participants did not press a key within 3,000 ms. We varied the interval between trials randomly between 1,000 ms and 1,500 ms.

Data Analysis

Using SPSS version 18.0 software, we performed a repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) to assess the effect of context and concreteness on word processing.

The data for the pseudowords and true words with incorrect responses were discarded. The remaining data were screened in accordance with the following criteria: the rate of the correct response of participants was more than 85% in both of the contexts; the reaction time was faster than 100 ms and slower than 1,800 ms. After applying these criteria, there were 43 participants, the effective rate of the remaining data was 84%, and the average accuracy rate for each context was 88%.


Results of the repeated-measures ANOVA showed that the main effect of context on reaction time was highly significant, F(1, 42) = 156.82, p < .001, [[eta].sup.2.sub.P] = .789, with reaction times being significantly shorter in the sentence-context condition than in the word-context condition. The main effect of concreteness was not significant, F(1, 42) = .806, p > .05. However, there was a significant interaction between context and concreteness, F(1, 42) = 9.79, p = .003, [[eta].sup.2.sub.P] = .189. A simple effects analysis showed that in the word-context condition, the mean reaction time for concrete words (M = 683.67, SD = 117.99) was significantly shorter than the reaction time for abstract words (M = 710.93, SD = 116.49), F(1,42) = 9.23, p = .004, demonstrating the concreteness effect on concept processing. In the sentence-context condition, the mean reaction time was significantly shorter for abstract words (M = 418.67, SD = 128.97) than for concrete words (M = 473.77, SD = 137.98), F(1, 42) = 4.07, p = .05, demonstrating the abstractness effect on concept processing.


Our objective was to determine whether or not features of linguistic information could facilitate the processing of abstract concepts, when the emotional valence of a concept was controlled. The results showed that overall, in the sentence-context condition, the concept processing of the participants improved, and in the word-context condition, the participants' processing of concrete concepts improved, and in the sentence-context condition, their processing of abstract concepts improved. Thus, Hypothesis 3 was supported, which supports the three-component model of embodied cognition theory.

In general, the classification of concepts as abstract or concrete is based on their relative concreteness. Concreteness refers to the extent to which one can readily form a mental image of a word's referent (Yu & Yan, 2011). The concreteness of concepts is greater when the referent can be directly perceived, touched, or felt by a person. In embodied cognition theory, it is proposed that the representation of concepts is based, at least in part, on the activation of sensory, motor, and emotional systems in the brain (Barsalou, 2009). Concrete concepts are grounded in the sensory-motor systems (Barsalou, 2009; Vigliocco et al., 2014), whereas abstract concepts are rooted mainly in emotional experience (Vigliocco et al., 2014) and situations, including context (Barsalou & Wiemer-Hastings, 2005). According to the three-component model, the division of concepts into concrete and abstract concepts is based on the specific advantages of two types of concept processing. Concrete concepts are associated with a statistical preponderance of sensory-motor information and abstract concepts are associated with a statistical preponderance of emotional and linguistic information; it is the differences among these three types of information that underlies the difference between concrete and abstract concepts (Vigliocco et al., 2009). When words are presented separately, the high figurativeness and the direct perception of concrete concepts mean that it is easy for sensory and motor systems to be activated in the brain; the processing advantages of sensory-motor information on concrete concepts also facilitate the processing of concrete concepts, thereby producing the concreteness effect, which is consistent with the findings reported in existing research (Dalla Volta et al., 2014). Abstract concepts lack figurativeness and they cannot be perceived directly, so they cannot activate the brain's sensory-motor system as well as concrete concepts do. When words are presented in the sentence context, the poor quality of contextual information on the concrete concept weaken, or even eliminate, the concreteness effect; the statistical high advantages of contextual information on the processing of abstract concepts enhance the individual's processing, producing the abstractness effect, even when the emotional valence is well controlled. This abstractness effect is consistent with the findings reported in existing research (Kousta et al., 2011; Wang & Yao, 2012).

Our study cannot be explained fully by either dual coding theory or the context-availability model. First, in the dual coding theory it is proposed that information processing involves an image system and a verbal system (Paivio, 1991). Abstract concepts can be represented in the brain only by verbal coding, whereas concrete concepts can be represented in the brain by both verbal coding and image coding. Therefore, the processing of concrete concepts that are represented by words will be easier than will the processing of abstract concepts, producing the concreteness effect in concept processing. This is consistent with the experimental results of this study when the words were presented separately. However, this theory cannot be applied to explain the abstractness effect in our study when words were presented in the context of sentences. That is to say, the dual coding theory does not explain why, among our participants, the processing of single-encoded abstract concepts should be more rapid than that of double-encoded concrete concepts in the context of a sentence. Second, the importance of context is a fundamental proposition of the context-availability model (Schwanenflugel et al., 1988). Because concrete concepts have stronger and more extensive associations with data stored in the semantic memory than abstract concepts do, there is a closer connection between the concrete concepts and the related contextual knowledge; thus, concrete concepts have a stronger contextual advantage than abstract concepts have. When an abstract concept is placed into the context of a sentence, it overcomes the cognitive deficits of lacking internal context, thereby weakening or eliminating the concreteness effect. However, this supplement to internal contextual knowledge is insufficient to make the abstractness effect appear, and, thus, the theory proposed in the context-availability model cannot explain the abstractness effect observed in the sentence context in our study. However, in the sentence context, both concrete and abstract concepts have more external contextual information, and, thus, concept processing is promoted, which may have produced the main effect of the context that we found in this experiment. Therefore, we concluded that sentence context enhanced the processing of all concepts, whether these were concrete or abstract.

Conclusion, Study Limitations, and Future Research Directions

In conclusion, our results show that sentence context could produce the abstractness effect, whereas the word context could produce the concreteness effect, for neutral words controlled for emotional valence. The findings provide additional support for the three-component model of concept processing.

The research has a limitation regarding the small sample size. In future studies, researchers should use a design that enables them to further explore whether or not contexts that differ according to valence and with target stimuli in different positions can affect the abstractness effect in concept processing.


Liusheng Wang

East China Normal University and Nantong University

Hongmei Qiu

Nantong University

Jianjun Yin

Jackson State University

Liusheng Wang, School of Psychology and Cognitive Science, East China Normal University and Department of Psychology, Nantong University; Hongmei Qiu, Department of Psychology, Nantong University; Jianjun Yin, Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education, Jackson State University.

This research was supported by National Social Funds of China grant BHA120051 and Ministry of Education grant 11YJC1900025.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Liusheng Wang, Department of Psychology, Nantong University, 9 Seyuan Road, Nantong City, Jiangsu 226019, People's Republic of China. Email:


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Concrete    Abstract   Sentence

C1101       A2101      He has been living in the countryside/reality.
C1102       A2102      There are a lot of prime ministers/customs in
                         the world.
C1103       A2103      Wang Ming accepted this woman/rule.
C1104       A2104      There is a king/standard in their country.
C1105       A2105      The little girl has been learning gymnastics/
C1106       A2106      What he looked for is a martyr/law.
C1107       A2107      Students need to understand the railways/
                         national conditions here.
C1108       A2108      The contents published in the press involve the
                         judge/legal system.
C1109       A2109      They often expand their own borders/perspective.
C1110       A2110      What we want is money/privilege.
C1111       A2111      This beautiful place becomes the heart/focus of
C1112       A2112      The children really didn't know that type of
C1201       A2201      She has been looking for her husband/solution.
C1202       A2202      There are some ants/differences between the two
C1203       A2203      A painter cannot paint that kind of
C1204       A2204      They are reporters/inexpensive.
C1205       A2205      Professor Wang has been studying lasers/finance.
C1206       A2206      What he is facing is the captain/responsibility.
C1207       A2207      Soldiers must obey the officer/discipline before
C1208       A2208      The contents in the book are only for
C1209       A2209      They must comply with their own
C1210       A2210      He has mastered information related to
                         people/military matters.

C1211       A2211      A perfect country needs to have a strong
                         president/national defense.
C1212       A2212      People are usually very concerned with these
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Author:Wang, Liusheng; Qiu, Hongmei; Yin, Jianjun
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Date:Aug 1, 2016
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