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The availability of salient and conceptually central properties of concepts in different contexts

Ferne Joi Friedman-Berg, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This work investigated the ways in which the properties of a concept are activated when that concept is accessed. There has been considerable debate about how closely property information is tied to concepts and under what conditions it is available (e.g., Margolis and Lawrence, 1999). If property information is automatically activated, it should be detectable in both frequency estimation and speeded response tasks. According to Barsalou and Ross' automaticity hypothesis (1986, p.117), “…people become sensitive to the frequency of non-presented information through automatic processing of presented items by well-established memory structures.” On this account, if a list of concepts is presented, participants may be sensitive to the frequency of their properties. Therefore, after studying a list of items, participants should be able to estimate the number of items that were “red” or “sweet” without recalling individual items. Naturally, some properties are more important to a concept than others and are more likely to be activated. Sloman, Love, and Ahn (1998) developed a taxonomy of conceptual properties. Using ratings obtained in a variety of tasks, they performed a factor analysis that revealed three factors: centrality, salience, and diagnosticity. In these studies, I manipulated centrality and salience to appraise their relative importance for the activation of properties. Barsalou's (1982) work on context-independent and context-dependent properties asserts that the activation of properties may be automatic or strategic, depending on the property type. In both a frequency estimation task and a sentence-word priming task, I manipulated context to evaluate whether central or salient properties are context-dependent. In the sentence-word priming task, I was also able to assess degrees of context dependency. I found that: (1) people demonstrated frequency sensitivity to both central and salient properties but were more sensitive to central properties; (2) central properties appear to be activated faster than salient properties as indicated by the slopes in the frequency estimation task and reaction times in the sentence-word priming task; (3) the activation of both central and salient properties appear to be context-dependent or situated (Barsalou, 2000), with the activation of central properties being moderately context-dependent and that of salient properties, highly context-dependent.

Subject Area

Cognitive therapy

Recommended Citation

Friedman-Berg, Ferne Joi, "The availability of salient and conceptually central properties of concepts in different contexts" (2003). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3078682.