Differential emotional processing in concrete and abstract words

Bo Yao, Anne Keitel, Gillian Bruce, Graham G Scott, Patrick J O'Donnell, Sara C Sereno

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)
502 Downloads (Pure)


Emotion (positive and negative) words are typically recognized faster than neutral words. Recent research suggests that emotional valence, while often treated as a unitary semantic property, may be differentially represented in concrete and abstract words. Studies that have explicitly examined the interaction of emotion and concreteness, however, have demonstrated inconsistent patterns of results. Moreover, these findings may be limited as certain key lexical variables (e.g., familiarity, age of acquisition) were not taken into account. We investigated the emotion-concreteness interaction in a large-scale, highly controlled lexical decision experiment. A 3 (Emotion: negative, neutral, positive) × 2 (Concreteness: abstract, concrete) design was used, with 45 items per condition and 127 participants. We found a significant interaction between emotion and concreteness. Although positive and negative valenced words were recognized faster than neutral words, this emotion advantage was significantly larger in concrete than in abstract words. We explored potential contributions of participant alexithymia level and item imageability to this interactive pattern. We found that only word imageability significantly modulated the emotion-concreteness interaction. While both concrete and abstract emotion words are advantageously processed relative to comparable neutral words, the mechanisms of this facilitation are paradoxically more dependent on imageability in abstract words. (PsycINFO Database Record

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1064-1074
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Issue number7
Early online date12 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018


  • Alexithymia
  • emotions
  • word recognition
  • affective valence
  • cognition
  • test construction


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