The Human Spark

The science of human development

On the Nature of Words, Part 1

Psychologists are too trusting of the validity of verbal reports of experience.

I begin my second year of blogs in Psychology Today with an essay on words because psychologists who study human personality, social psychology, and pathology rely heavily, sometimes exclusively, on a person’s verbal reports as the sole source of evidence. This practice is questionable because what people say about their beliefs, behaviors, past history, and emotions are not always valid proxies of the events described. Words in sentences, like lenses that vary in curvature, have special properties that distort the phenomena they purport to represent.

So much has been written on the properties of words I decided to devote three blogs to cover the major ideas. This blog deals with the difference between schemata and semantic forms and the multiple definitions of meaning. A person’s corpus of knowledge consists of schemata for events in the outside world, detected bodily sensations that give rise to feelings, and motor actions, and, finally, semantic forms, which rarely contain any of the physical features of the events they name. Each person’s knowledge about an event or concept is contained in networks that can combine more than one kind 

The world’s approximately 6000 languages sort events into different semantic categories. English invented different words to distinguish mice from rats. The Thai language has one word for both animal species, even though Thai speakers can perceive the difference in size between mice and rats. The ancient Greeks invented separate words for physical pain and mental distress; the Romans had only one word- dolor- for both kinds of distress.

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Networks vary in the number and strength of the associations among its members. Alan Rosenthal, a commentator on European culture, notes that the names of some nations represent distinctive networks. The network for France possessed by most Europeans contains strong links to schemata or words for culture, art, romance, wine, and women. The network for Germany, by contrast, is associated with war, Nazis, and cars, which have a more masculine connotation.

The automatic habit of linking together words belonging to the same network renders humans susceptible to false memories of the past. An observer was asked one month after he saw a gang of boys tease a small child, but not physically harm him, whether any boy hit the child. If the observer had registered the scene semantically as “aggression”, he or she is likely to say “yes” because of the association between the words aggression and hitting. This error is less likely if the person had registered the event as a schema without a semantic label.     

Many semantic networks, especially nouns for objects, form a hierarchy. Speakers in a language community select one of these levels as the “basic” category in conversation. Social scientists, unlike most in their language community, prefer words that are higher in the hierarchy. For example, most Americans would say, "When Mary was a child she was afraid of her father’s harsh punishments.” Psychologists are likely to make “stress” the basic level term and write, “Mary experienced stress as a child”. This statement ignores the cause of Mary’s stress and the feeling tone that accompanied it. Psychologists ought to be friendlier to the biologist’s preference for particularity and avoid abstract terms that parade as names for unitary processes.

The definition of “meaning” remains controversial. Whenever a term has an ambiguous definition it is always wise to focus on the phenomena rather than defend a particular definition. Any event that reliably signals a second event has a meaning. The sight of a piece of chocolate cake is meaningful if it is followed by the anticipation of a sweet taste. At least four different kinds of phenomena meet this criterion.

The first refers to the occasions when one schema automatically evokes a second schema simply because they typically occur together at the same time or in the same location, as in the case of the chocolate cake and sweetness.

A second kind meaning has to be taught; for example individuals have to learn that an arrow pointing to the left in a building or parking garage means one should turn left or that a moving red truck emitting a loud siren means there is a fire somewhere. The third and fourth types of meaning are called semantic because the associations contain one or more words. These meanings are symbolic because the words do not correspond to the event’s physical features.

The two important facts are that sentences, not words, are the usual carriers of semantic meaning and the meaning of a sentence depends on how the members of a language community interpret it. A listener needs to know whether it is rain or a ball that is falling; a cloud or a mouse that is moving, or a window or a mouth that is opening in order to extract the correct meaning of the verbs fall, move, and open. I was surprised when European scientists broke this rule and used the verb "divorce” to describe the behaviors of male and female birds. 

The fact that a sentence can have more than one meaning for listeners is seen in the answers to the question, “Which of these colors do you prefer?”, by English speakers and members of the Himba people of Namibia. The English speakers selected blue as their preferred color, partly because they interpreted the sentence to mean they should select the color that evoked pleasant associations and blue has the fewest number of associations with unpleasant experiences. The Himba adults, however, rated blue as their least preferred color because they interpreted the sentence asked in their language to mean they should pick the color whose physical features were pleasing and they find the richly saturated colors of red, orange, and green most pleasing. Next month I will continue the discussion by considering a new set of ideas.

Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the field of developmental psychology. His latest book is The Human Spark.

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