Semantic satiation

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Chapter 3 endnote 9, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

We had [the test subjects] repeat an emotion word like “anger” over and over. Eventually, the word becomes just a sound to the subject (“ang-gurr”) that’s mentally disconnected from its meaning. This technique has the same effect as creating a temporary brain lesion, but it’s completely safe and lasts less than one second.

You can temporarily deactivate your own emotion concepts in the same way: just say the word “anger” out loud 30 times, speaking at a rate of one word per second. Eventually, the word seems to lose its meaning and becomes just a jumble of sound. The deactivation lasts for under a second.

As a kid, my friends and I found this kind of wordplay hysterical. But this technique is more than a game: it’s a powerful experimental technique in psychology, called semantic satiation, that disconnects the sound of a word (“ang-gurr”) from the conceptual knowledge it represents.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]

We incorporated these word repetitions into our experiments. On some trials, we asked the subject to repeat an emotion word 30 times (such as “anger, anger, anger, anger...”). On others, they repeated a non-emotion, mental state word (like “trust, trust, trust, trust...”) to rule out the possibility that the repetition was tiring out our subjects. Then, on each trial, after the subjects repeated the word, we presented two basic-emotion-style photos of stereotyped faces and asked if the facial configurations matched or not.[8] This experiment, along with others[9], showed that the emotion words contained in the basic emotion method are not inert; they prime emotion concepts in test subjects.


Notes on the Notes

  1. Balota, David A., and Sheila Black. 1997. "Semantic satiation in healthy young and older adults." Memory & Cognition 25 (2): 190-202.
  2. Black, Sheila R. 2001. "Semantic satiation and lexical ambiguity resolution." The American Journal of Psychology 114 (4): 493-510.
  3. Kanungo, Rabindranath, and Wallace E. Lambert. 1963. "Semantic satiation and meaningfulness." The American Journal of Psychology 76 (3): 421-428.
  4. Lewis, Michael B., and Hadyn D. Ellis. 2000. "Satiation in name and face recognition." Memory & Cognition 28 (5): 783-788.
  5. Smith, Lee C. 1984. "Semantic satiation affects category membership decision time but not lexical priming." Memory & Cognition 12 (5): 483-488.
  6. Smith, Lee, and Raymond Klein. 1990. "Evidence for semantic satiation: Repeating a category slows subsequent semantic processing." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 16 (5): 852-861.
  7. Tan, X., Huber, D. E. (2010). Testing an associative account of semantic satiation. Cognitive Psychology 60 (4): 267-290.
  8. Lindquist, Kristen A., Lisa Feldman Barrett, Eliza Bliss-Moreau, and James A. Russell. 2006. "Language and the perception of emotion." Emotion 6 (1): 125-138.
  9. Gendron, Maria, Kristen A. Lindquist, Lawrence Barsalou, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. 2012. "Emotion words shape emotion percepts." Emotion 12 (2): 314-325.