Relational categories are more mutable than entity categories

Jennifer Asmuth*, Dedre Gentner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Across three experiments, we explore differences between relational categories—whose members share common relational patterns—and entity categories, whose members share common intrinsic properties. Specifically, we test the claim that relational concepts are more semantically mutable in context, and therefore less stable in memory, than entity concepts. We compared memory for entity nouns and relational nouns, tested either in the same context as at encoding or in a different context. We found that (a) participants show better recognition accuracy for entity nouns than for relational nouns, and (b) recognition of relational nouns is more impaired by a change in context than is recognition of entity nouns. We replicated these findings even when controlling for factors highly correlated with relationality, such as abstractness–concreteness. This suggests that the contextual mutability of relational concepts is due to the core semantic property of conveying relational structure and not simply to accompanying characteristics such as abstractness. We note parallels with the distinction between nouns and verbs and suggest implications for lexical and conceptual structure. Finally, we relate these patterns to proposals that a deep distinction exists between words with an essentially referential function and those with a predicate function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2007-2025
Number of pages19
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 3 2017


  • Memory
  • Noun–verb differences
  • Relational categories
  • Relational nouns
  • Semantics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychology(all)
  • Physiology (medical)


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