Concepts and goals

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Chapter 5 endnote 17, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Your brain combines bits and pieces of past experience to create a concept that is the best fit to the sensory cues of the current situation; this allows you to achieve your goal in this situation. [...] Barsalou (1985) demonstrated that concepts are constructed dynamically and flexibly.

The psychologist Larry Barsalou demonstrated that all concepts are constructed dynamically and flexibly, as goals fluctuate with the surrounding context.[1][2][3][4] For example, in one experiment, he gave subjects some purely mental concepts (e.g., “Things To Take From One’s Home During A Fire”) and natural concepts (e.g., “Birds”) and a set of instances for each. He asked subjects to rate how prototypical was each instance of each concept on different days, in different contexts or from different points of view. All of these factors had huge influences on what was considered typical for the concepts.[5][6][7][8][9] This variation was evidence that concepts are not unitary, rigid and static. Concepts are dynamic, constructed by the brain as needed.[10][11] When test subjects answered Barsalou’s questions in each situation, they sampled different knowledge to construct the best instance of the concept for that situation.

Suppose I asked you to list the features of the concept “Apple.” You might say: round, red, shiny, crunchy, and tart. The goal implicit here is “to eat.” However, if you goal were "to plant a tree," you might list other features entirely, such as “contains seeds.” Therefore, if I’d asked you the same question in a cafeteria at lunchtime, or in an orchard in the springtime, you’d likely answer differently in each context. Further features of an apple, such as “tastes good with caramel” and “looks nice in a gift basket,” would come up in yet other contexts. If you were at your desk when asked the question, you might come up the features of a Macintosh computer.

Most concepts can be in the service of multiple goals, and when you construct a “best” instance of a concept, the features you sample depend on your goal in a particular situation.


Notes on the Notes

  1. Barsalou, Lawrence W. 1982. "Context-independent and context-dependent information in concepts." Memory & Cognition 10 (1): 82-93.
  2. Barsalou, Lawrence W. 1991. "Deriving categories to achieve goals." Psychology of Learning and Motivation 27: 1-64.
  3. Barsalou, Lawrence W. 1987. "The instability of graded structure: Implications for the nature of concepts." In Concepts and Conceptual Development: Ecological and Intellectual Factors in Categorization, edited by Ulric Neisser, 101-140. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Barsalou, Lawrence W. 1989. "Intraconcept similarity and its implications for interconcept similarity." In Similarity and Analogical Reasoning, edited by Stella Vosniadou and Andrew Ortony, 76-121. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Barsalou, L. W. and D. R. Sewell, 1984. "Constructing Representations of Categories from Different Points of View." Technical Report. Emory University, Atlanta.
  6. Barsalou, Lawrence W., and Daniel R. Sewell. 1985. "Contrasting the representation of scripts and categories." Journal of Memory and Language 24 (6): 646-665.
  7. Murphy, Gregory L. 1988. "Comprehending complex concepts." Cognitive Science 12 (4): 529-562.
  8. Roth, Emilie M., and Edward J. Shoben. 1983. "The effect of context on the structure of categories." Cognitive Psychology 15 (3): 346-378.
  9. Schwanenflugel, Paula J., and Mario Rey. 1986. "The relationship between category typicality and concept familiarity: Evidence from Spanish-and English-speaking monolinguals." Memory & Cognition 14 (2): 150-163.
  10. Barsalou, Lawrence W. 1983. "Ad hoc categories." Memory & Cognition 11 (3): 211-227.
  11. Yee, Eiling, and Sharon L. Thompson-Schill. 2016. "Putting concepts into context." Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 23 (4): 1015-1027.