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Abstract concepts and sociality

IMC Tuesday Seminar: Talk by Chiara Fini, Sapienza University of Rome

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Tuesday 26 October 2021,  at 11:00 - 12:30


1483-656 and on https://aarhusuniversity.zoom.us/my/imcevents

Talk by Chiara Fini, Sapienza University of Rome

Abstract concepts and sociality

Abstract concepts might be acquired more through the linguistic inputs and less through the sensorimotor experience because of their higher complexity, heterogeneity and the lack of a physical referent. The major role played by the linguistic component is testified by evidence showing the involvement of the mouth during the processing of abstract meanings. Inner Speech (IS) might be associated with the involvement of the mouth: through the internal dialogue we might access complex meanings and/or we might prepare ourselves to a real social dialogue aimed to dispel any doubts about our knowledge (social metacognition).

Here, I will provide an overview of some of the recent studies conducted in our Lab (BalLab), aimed at supporting evidence that abstract concepts recruit IS and are more rooted in sociality as compared with concrete ones.

Firstly, I will introduce a recent behavioural study, in which we asked participants to decide as fast as possible whether a word was abstract or concrete during the subvocal repetition of a syllable, the manipulation of a softball, or without doing anything (baseline). Results indicate that the articulatory suppression significantly impacted the processing of abstract words compared to concrete words, while in the manipulation condition, the magnitude of the effect was reduced, supporting the importance of the IS during the processing of abstract concepts. Next, I will present kinematic results speaking in favour of the social metacognition proposal and of an “embodied” sociality intrinsic to abstract concepts. In the current study, participants were required to predict the actions of an avatar on the screen in order to plan their own actions towards a bottle-shaped object (joint action task). Before and after they were asked to guess the concept evoked by a visual image displayed on a screen (conceptual guessing task). One confederate helped participants to guess abstract concepts, and a second confederate helped them to guess concrete concepts. The results show that participants asked for more hints, and they were aware of their higher need for help from others when guessing the meaning of abstract as compared with concrete concepts. The metacognitive feeling or assessment of the limits of their knowledge might have led participants to rely more on available social actors. Crucially, in the joint action task, they were more coordinated with the avatar which they believed embodying the confederate associated with abstract concepts. This result leads to the idea that during linguistic exchanges on complex meanings two actors might be more bodily tuned. Then,  I will show preliminary results of an ongoing study aimed to investigate how conversing about abstract concepts shapes the psychological attunement between the interlocutors and the perceived psychological distance between them.

Finally, I will present additional evidence on the link between abstract concepts and sociality, based on thermal imaging results collected in a sample of Italian children between 5 and 7 years old. They were asked to listen to pre-recorded words and to decide whether they were Italian or not, by pressing as fast as possible a button when they recognized the words. Children were faster with concrete concepts (concreteness effect) and they showed an increased parasympathetic activation with abstract concepts. We think that the parasympathetic activation since it is usually associated with prosocial behaviour, might corroborate the social metacognition proposal; in other words, children would prepare themselves to interact with an intellectual referent (i.e., a teacher) in order to master complex meanings.

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