Workshop: The role of social interaction in abstract concept formation and abstract words use

Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi, University of Warsaw

Abstraction has been studied for years in the context of individual cognition: the individual mind’s capacity to classify, find new relations and generalize along new dimensions. However, the fact that the human environment from the earliest moments is a social environment, and that first experiences arise in our engagements with others, raise questions about what exactly is the reality that gives rise to conceptual knowledge, what are the „basic” perceptual data, and what are the processes that enable or facilitate emergence of concepts. It seems that knowledge about physical objects and the individual mental processes, which were for decades the primary target of research on concepts in cognitive psychology, are only part of the story.

Recent research points to the importance of social interaction in forming and stabilizing abstract concepts (Thompson et al., 2020; Borghi et al., 2018; Levinson & Enfield, 2020) and – in turn – the role of concepts in forming and guiding social interactions. However, a common language for talking about such relations between concepts and embodied interactions and an integrated methodology for research are still in the making. The session we propose aims at contributing to the development of such common ground by presenting theoretical work and empirical research on the role social factors in the emergence of abstract concepts. On the theoretical level, we ask very basic questions such as if abstract concepts have to be grounded at all and how much their use and understanding relies on language (Winter), how individual experiences can be shared and integrated in dialogues to form abstractions (Tylen), how attention to social relations and first person experience might question the concreteabstract division (Rączaszek-Leonardi and Zubek) and whether the phenomenon of abstractness is a purely semantic one or if it concerns the topology of relations as well (Jastrzębski).

The empirical work within the session shows that dialogical negotiations lead to more useful abstractions (Tylen), that dimensions of abstraction might be a useful way to think about individual creativity (Kuczma) and that understanding cultural forces shaping seemingly simple concepts, such as „gender” might lead to recognizing its highly constructed and abstract nature and at the same time point to the methods of studying how it is embodied and instilled in everyday interactions (Nagórska et al.).

The general hope for the session is to strike a debate on the uniformity of concepts on the one hand and the general principles that lead to their emergence on the other.



Thompson, B., Roberts, S.G., Lupyan, G. (2020) Cultural influences on word meaning revealed through large-scale semantic alignment. Nature Human Behaviour 4 (10), 1029-1038

Borghi, A. M., Barca, L., Binkofski, F., & Tummolini, L. (2018). Varieties of abstract concepts: development, use and representation in the brain.Phil.Trans.Royal Society B.

Levinson, S.C., & Enfield, N.J. (2020). Roots of human sociality: Culture, cognition and interaction. Routledge


Dialogue and abstraction

Kristian Tylén, Aarhus University

Abstraction is fundamental to human categorization, allowing our cognitive system to group varied experiences as tokens of the same abstract type. This makes our categories resilient to noise and enables us to respond cleverly to novel experiences in an uncertain or dynamically changing environment due to their higher order similarities or analogies (i.e. their family resemblances) to known entities (Medin, Wattenmaker, & Hampson, 1987). Abstraction processes are often portrayed as generalizations across accumulated experiences in the mind of an individual, allowing representations to transfer and apply more flexibly to new or changing contexts (Gentner, 1983; Gentner & Medina, 1998; Loewenstein et al., 1999; Perkins & Salomon, 1992). We suggest that a similar, but socially distributed cognitive process can unfold in contexts of dialogical social interaction (Fusaroli, Gangopadhyay, & Tylén, 2014; Schwartz, 1995; Tylén, Fusaroli, Smith, & Arnoldi, 2020). Here, abstract representations are the product of generalization across experiences of different individuals dialogically sharing their introspections, and emerge to accommodate the summed variance of individual perspectives. In other words, we argue that social interaction stimulates cognitive processes of abstraction at the level of the group. In the presentation, I will discuss finding from a series of experiments where individuals and groups solve complex rule-based categorization tasks. It is found that groups – through dialogical negotiation – are more likely to form abstract problem representations that facilitate task performance and transfer better to new task contexts.


Do abstract concepts have to be grounded in anything other than language?

Bodo Winter, University of Birmingham

Abstract concepts are generally seen as a challenge for embodied theories of language and cognition: given that concepts such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ seem to have very little concrete perceptual content, how could these concepts be understood using ‘embodied’ processes such as perceptual simulation? In response to this challenge, researchers have proposed that abstract concepts are grounded in multiple different representations, including simulated situational knowledge, interoception, affective representations, and more. In this talk I want to push back against the notion that abstract concepts have to be grounded. Instead, I want to propose that abstract concepts are perhaps a challenge that embodied theories can ignore, i.e., abstract concepts may simply be out of the purview of embodied theories. I will argue that the research agenda to seek for the grounding of abstract concepts is at least partially rooted in a widespread misunderstanding of Harnad’s symbol grounding problem, which is often misconstrued as saying that all concepts have to be grounded in perceptual processes, whereas in fact all the symbol grounding problem entails is that some concepts have to be grounded (Harnad, 1990). Abstract concepts may be amongst those many concepts (Vincent-Lamarre et al., 2016) that are not grounded in anything other than connections to other linguistically represented symbols. I will use empirical shortcomings of one specific proposal of the grounding of abstract concepts — the idea that abstract concepts are grounded in affective representations (Kousta et al., 2011; Vigliocco et al., 2014; Ponari et al., 2018) — as a testbed to explore the limitations of any one approach that seeks to ground abstract concepts in anything other than language. I will conclude by defending an ‘embodiment on demand’ view, where embodied effects such as perceptual simulations only play a strong role when the context is highly concrete, and in particular if speakers or signers use highly iconic words or signs to invite their interlocutors to simulate. Within this ‘embodiment on demand’ view, symbolic processing with linguistic representations takes center stage, and the ‘embodied’ process of perceptual simulation merely assumes a subsidiary role when speakers/signers refer to perceptual things and care about communicating perceptual detail in a vivid fashion.


Ecological and enactive take of concepts as built on relations in a social environment

Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi, University of Warsaw

Julian Zubek, University of Warsaw

The dominance of the information processing paradigm in cognitive psychological research on concepts brought with it a heavy emphasis on „objectively available” (most often visual) information as entry „data” for knowledge structures. This has been strengthened by the cognitive science’s attempts to develop artificial systems, which can perform various classifications. Yet the recent ecological turn points to the fundamentally relational character of what is perceivable, that is, agent- and action-dependent properties. What is equally important, this relational nature brings forward the importance of the first-person experience, which accompanies any perception of what the environment affords. We would like to use these tenets, together with a constatation that our environments are predominantly social, especially in the early stages of development, to reflect on the concept of abstractness itself. In line with research on early objects perception (de Barbaro et al., 2013) and participatory object perception (di Paolo, 2016), we ask if perhaps what we conceive as simple, concrete objects, aren’t in fact more abstract than our first-person experiences in social situations: can, for example, a „bottle” be considered an abstract concept and „agency” a concrete one?


Modelling abstractness as a topological feature

Borys Jastrzębski, University of Warsaw

Abstractness and concreteness are usually conceptualised as purely semantic features of a concept. Although intuitive, this approach severely limits the analytical power of the above dimensions. Understood as primitives, they need to be measured experimentally for each new concept and pose a critical challenge to the assessment of word compounds or sentences where there are no ground rules for estimating combined abstractness. From the theoretical standpoint, abstractness as a semantic primitive threatens the compatibility of abstractness research with the dynamical systems view of linguistic meaning and interactions. Abstract vs. concrete concepts understood prima facie concern the ontology of the object they describe and thus evoke the mapping metaphor of reference rather than analysing the interplay of constraints that the concepts place on interactions. In this contribution, I will propose an exploratory relation-based approach to conceptualising the dimensions of abstractness and concreteness based on the previously developed framework of meaning as networks of constraints (Jastrzębski & Rączaszek-Leonardi 2022, manuscript). Rather than treating them as semantic primitives, I will offer a possible analysis of the positions the relevant concepts take in qualitative constraints networks. If consistent, it would suggest a topology-based account of abstract and concrete objects with the hope of addressing the theoretical and practical issues of a purely semantic view of abstractness.


Abstraction in divergent thinking

Urszula Kuczma, University of Warsaw

Kristian Tylén, Aarhus University

Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi, University of Warsaw

Divergent thinking, a process of spontaneous generation of ideas based on exploration of possibilities, is believed to be based on the ability to create remote semantic associations (Wang et al. 2018). In a form of exploratory research we tested whether these associations might be tightly connected to the process of generalization, feature extraction and abstraction in general. The key aspects were distant associations, regarded as long semantic jumps between domains. With the hypothesis that there might be an underlying dimension for each pair of associated concepts along which these associations are aligned, we investigated these dimensions as forms of abstraction. The associative dimensions potentially linking concepts vary from context to context and are possibly not reducible to an exhaustive list. The associations were analyzed in the form of a qualitative experiment based on a verbal fluency task and interview with subjects. Subjects analyzed their own chain of thoughts commenting on what triggered their associations. The process revealed interesting insights into the mutli-dimensionality of the associations and the strategies to realize the task and also opened up a discussion about the place of abstraction within these dimensions. We would like to present the outcomes of this exploratory research and the functional aspect of abstraction in regard to divergent thinking.


Embodying gender/sex in interaction dynamics: patterns of early speech and vocalization by mothers and infants

Ewa Nagórska, University of Warsaw

Claudia Mazzuca, Sapienza University of Rome

Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi, University of Warsaw

Anne Fausto-Sterling, Brown University

During the last twenty years, the concepts of gender and sex have been thoroughly discussed, and the difficulty in separating these notions has been brought upon general attention (cf. Fausto-Sterling, 2019), resulting in increased popularity of the unifying term of “gender/sex” (van Anders and Dunn, 2009). The notion of “gender/sex” contains, amongst others, one’s identity or role, physicality & physiology. The multifacetedness of gender/sex is especially visible in early infancy and childhood (from birth to 36 months), when the child develops quickly in all areas (for detailed description, see Fausto-Sterling, 2021). During this period, the children are also experiencing first interactions with others, which shape the way they think about themselves and the world. In this preliminary study, we treat gender/sex as a concept arising due to a constellation of relations which are enacted with the child from the earliest moments of life. Sequences and timings of the vocal contributions have been also shown as dictated by values preserved in interaction, such as mutual interest and respect (Rączaszek-Leonardi & Nomikou, 2015). As shown by Nomikou et al. (2017), changing established dynamics of behaviours results in differences in the initiative/agency of the infant. We focus on how these relations concerning gender/sex are instilled in the vocal layer and speech in several aspects: semantics, relative timing and qualities of vocalizations, both by mother and the child. We will present results obtained by qualitative analyses of dyadic speech, as well as compare the dynamical profiles of interactions.


 Concepts in conversation: behaviour coordination and role of effector for different kinds of concepts

Jędrzej Miecznikowski, University of Warsaw

Valentina Rossi, Sapienza University of Rome

Anna Borghi, Department of Dynamic and Clinical Psychology, and Health Studies, Sapienza University of Rome / Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, Italian Research Council

Chiara Fini, Sapienza University of Rome

Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi, University of Warsaw

Julian Zubek, University of Warsaw

Humans have an ability to create and use abstract concepts unparalleled in the animal kingdom. While there is no direct opposition between abstract and concrete concepts, they vary along many dimensions: the first are typically less imageable, more detached from the five senses, more variable across contexts and participants and evoke more interoception (Villani et al., 2019). Crucial for us is the fact that they score higher in social metacognition, feeling that others can help us in understanding word meaning (Borghi et al., 2019).

Other authors have also proposed that the metacognitive awareness of the inadequacy of our knowledge might lead to relying more on other people (Shea, 2019).

A recent study supports this hypothesis, showing that participants’ movement is more synchronous with an experimenter when they have to guess the abstract, rather than the concrete concept to which an image refers (Fini et al., 2021).

Drawing from these works, we hypothesise that abstract concepts elicit cooperation. We devised an experimental task in which dyads were presented with concrete and abstract concepts belonging to different kinds, and were required to arrive at common definitions of abstract and concrete concepts through natural conversations. Additionally, we explore the notion that different clusters of abstract concepts (philosophical-spiritual, self-sociality, emotive, and physical-spatiotemporal-quantitative) may vary in eliciting cooperation.

Cooperation within the pair was operationalized by coordination on multiple timescales and measured using recurrence quantification analysis of the time series acquired through tracking the participants’ movements during their interaction. We expect that conversations concerning concrete and abstract concepts are characterised by different coordination patterns. We will present preliminary results of the experiments carried out in both Italy and Poland, and propose further steps for research on abstract concepts and prosocial behaviour.


Language and types of abstract concepts: A dual-task interference study

Johanne Nedergård, Department of Linguistics, Cognitive Science and Semiotics, Aarhus University

Marta Kapielska, Faculty of Psychology, Warsaw University

Anna Borghi, Department of Dynamic and Clinical Psychology, and Health Studies, Sapienza University of Rome / Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, Italian Research Council

Many researchers have suggested that the processing of abstract concepts depends on language, with a recent study (Villani et al., 2019) arguing that some abstract concepts could be more reliant on language than others. In this preregistered study (, we tested the role of language in the processing of different categories of abstract concepts by having participants solve odd-one-out problems while engaging in either verbal or visuospatial secondary interference tasks. For each odd-one-out trial, participants saw three images depicting abstract or concrete concepts and were asked to select the one that did not depict the same concept as the other two. We conducted the study online. In the main part of the experiment, we asked participants to alternate between odd-one-out abstract concept trials and 1-back matching verbal or visuospatial interference trials. We also include a control condition with no interference. We predicted that abstract concept processing would be slower and less accurate in the verbal interference condition. In contrast to our predictions, processing of abstract concepts appeared faster and less accurate under both verbal and visuospatial interference compared to the control condition. Performance under verbal interference was also faster than under visuospatial interference – this was, however, not the case for processing of concrete concepts where visuospatial interference was associated with the fastest reaction times. We have two potential explanations for the unexpected results. First, it could be the case that verbal recoding (the path from image to verbal label) takes time and that verbal interference prevents participants from recoding across modalities. This would be consistent with faster but less accurate odd-one-out decisions under verbal interference. With concrete concepts, the images are more visually similar so verbal recoding may not be necessary. Consistently with this idea, reaction times were also faster the higher words scored in social metacognition, i.e. the more people evaluated they needed others to understand word meaning. Second, previous research using dual-task interference (see Nedergaard, Wallentin, & Lupyan, 2022, for a review) has found that a verbal secondary task interferes with behavioural inhibition, which may also have been the case in our experiment. This explanation fits less well with our findings regarding concrete concepts. We discuss what our results might mean with regard to the idea that language – both as it occurs internally and between people – plays an important role in the formation and negotiation of abstract concepts as well as the processing of them.



Nedergaard, J., Wallentin, M., & Lupyan, G. (2022). Verbal interference paradigms: A systematic review investigating the role of language in cognition.

Villani, C., Lugli, L., Liuzza, M. T., & Borghi, A. M. (2019). Varieties of abstract concepts and their multiple dimensions. Language and Cognition, 11(3), 403–430.

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