Prototypicality , distinctiveness, and intercorrelation: Analyses of the semantic attributes of living and nonliving concepts

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Many cognitive psychological, computational, and neuropsychological approaches to the organisation of semantic memory have incorporated the idea that concepts are, at least partly, represented in terms of their fine-grained features. We asked 20 normal volunteers to provide properties of 64 concrete items, drawn from living and nonliving categories, by completing simple sentence stems (e.g., an owl ishas can At a later date, the same participants rated the same concepts for prototypicality and familiarity. The features generated were classified as to type of knowledge (sensory, functional, or encyclopaedic), and also quantified with regard to both dominance (the number of participants specifying that property for that concept) and distinctiveness (the proportion of exemplars within a conceptual category of which that feature was considered characteristic). The results demonstrate that rated prototypicality is related to both the familiarity of the concept and its distance from the average of the exemplars within the same category (the category centroid). The feature database was also used to replicate, resolve, and extend a variety of previous observations on the structure of semantic representations. Specifically, the results of our analyses (1) resolve two conflicting claims regarding the relative ratio of sensory to other kinds of attributes in living vs. nonliving concepts; (2) offer new information regarding the types of features-across different domains-that distinguish concepts from their category coordinates; and (3) corroborate some previous claims of higher intercorrelations between features of living things than those of artefacts.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)125-174
Number of pages49
JournalCognitive Neuropsychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2001