Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Master of Science




Ken McRae


Very little is known about how people understand abstract concepts. While a good deal is known about concrete concepts such as chair or apple, concepts that are perceptually elusive, such as idea or freedom, remain a challenge for theories of conceptual knowledge. Past research has explained how these concepts are understood by focusing on how they differ from concrete concepts, suggesting they are primarily understood by their relations to other words. However, recent research recognizes that this is not a comprehensive view of their representation, and that it excludes much of people’s everyday experience. Accordingly, current theories of grounded cognition propose that real-world situational knowledge plays a key role in how people understand abstract concepts. Experiment 1 supports this idea by showing that short scenario descriptions prime abstract concepts in the absence of any word association. In Experiment 2, I grouped concepts according to whether they relate multiple aspects of a situation, or refer to internal states. The former shows significant priming but the latter does not. These experiments demonstrate the importance of situational knowledge for the representation and processing of abstract concepts, including how the relationship between situations and abstract concepts is important to delineating among them.