Context and structure in conceptual combination

Douglas L. Medin*, Edward J. Shoben

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

265 Scopus citations


Three experiments evaluated modifications of conceptual knowledge associated with judgments of adjective-noun conceptual combinations. Existing models, such as the Smith and Osherson modification model, assume that the changes associated with understanding an adjective noun combination are confined to the corresponding adjectival dimension. Our experiments indicate that this assumption is too strong. The first study found that naming one dimension affects correlated dimensions. For example, participants judge small spoons to be more typical spoons than large spoons, but for wooden spoons, large spoons are more typical than small spoons. The second study demonstrated that the similarity of adjectives is not independent of the noun context in which they appear. For example, white and gray are judged to be more similar than gray and black in the context of hair but this judgment reverses in the context of clouds. The third study showed that a property equally true (or false) for two concepts may be more central to one concept than the other (e.g., it is more important that boomerangs be curved than that bananas be curved). These results pose serious problems for current theories of how people combine concepts. We propose instead that we need richer views of both the conceptual structure and the modifications of it required by conceptual combination. We suggest that theoretical knowledge and the construct of centrality of meaning may play useful roles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)158-190
Number of pages33
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1988

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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