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Heterogenous abstract concepts: is “ponder” different from “dissolve”?


Abstract words have usually been treated as a homogenous group, with limited investigation of the influence of different underlying representational systems for these words. In the present study we examined lexical–semantic processing of abstract verbs, separating them into mental state, emotional state and nonembodied state types. We used a syntactic classification task and a memory task to investigate behavioural differences amongst the abstract verb types. Semantic richness effects of each of the verbs' associates were then investigated to determine the relationship of linguistic associations to semantic processing response times for abstract verbs. We found a modest effect of abstract verb type, with mental state abstract verbs processed more quickly than nonembodied abstract verbs in the syntactic classification task; however, this effect was task dependent. We also found that memory was less accurate for the mental state abstract verbs. The semantic richness analysis of abstract verb associates revealed (1) that the concreteness of an abstract verb’s associates has a positive relationship to the verb’s response time and (2) a negative relationship between response time and age of acquisition for associates of nonembodied verbs. The results provide support for the proposal that abstract concepts engage complex representations in modal and linguistic systems.

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  1. The response time data from Experiments 1–3 exhibited a positive skew. Supplementary analyses using a log-transformed response time for all mixed effect models reported here found that all significant fixed effects remained when using the log-transformed response time, with the exception of the significant difference between nonembodied abstract verbs and embodied verbs reported for Experiment 2. This effect was also not present in Experiment 1, which likely indicates this is not a strong or reliable effect as discussed in the discussion section.

  2. Mixed effect models were also conducted using the response data for the Experiment 2 encoding task and the SCT from Experiment 3. Those results are consistent with the AoA and concreteness effects reported here. The frequency of associates effect from Experiment 1 was not replicated in the data from Experiment 2 or 3.


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This work was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), in the form of a Canada Graduate Scholarship – Masters to EJM and a Discovery Grant to PMP.


This study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (RGPIN/03860-2018).

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Correspondence to Emiko J. Muraki.

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Emiko J. Muraki declares that she has no conflict of interest. David M. Sidhu declares that he has no conflict of interest. Penny M. Pexman declares that she has no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee (Conjoint Faculties Research Ethics Board, REB14-1662) and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Appendix A

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Table 11 Verb stimuli


Appendix B

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Table 12 Noun stimuli


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Muraki, E.J., Sidhu, D.M. & Pexman, P.M. Heterogenous abstract concepts: is “ponder” different from “dissolve”?. Psychological Research 86, 2478–2494 (2022).

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