ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2020, Vol. 52 ›› Issue (2): 128-138.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2020.00128

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Spatial iconicity of moral concepts: Co-dependence of linguistic and embodied symbols

WANG Hanlin,JIANG Zeliang,FENG Xiaohui,LU Zhongyi()   

  1. College of Education, Hebei Normal University, Shijiazhuang 050024, China
  • Received:2019-04-02 Published:2020-02-25 Online:2019-12-24
  • Contact: Zhongyi LU


Spatial iconicity is described as the perceptual characteristic of a concrete concept. This idea demonstrates that word pairs are processed faster when their positions match certain references in the physical world (e.g. ‘heaven’ is presented above ‘ground’). Embodied cognition theory explains that spatial iconicity involves processing concrete words to activate their embodied symbols automatically (e.g. spatial and colour symbols). This process then simulates the perceptual characteristics of the words’ physical reference. Symbolic theory proposes that spatial iconicity can also be interpreted by linguistic factors (e.g. word order frequency). Word order frequency is higher in the iconic order than in the reverse-iconic order, which facilitates the processing of word pairs. Symbol interdependency hypothesis integrates the two explanations above, claiming that the embodied and linguistic symbols are involved in shaping spatial iconicity. Furthermore, the respective contributions of these symbols depend on the type of stimuli or task. Despite these claims, the mechanism of spatial iconicity remains controversial. Moreover, whether abstract concepts have a similar spatial iconic effect is still unknown.

In Experiment 1, a semantic relationship judgment task was conducted to investigate the effect of embodied symbols on the processing of moral word pairs. Twenty-six participants were chosen randomly to discriminate the antonymous relationship of the moral word pairs in an iconic (e.g. moral-up & immoral-down) or reverse-iconic (e.g. moral-down & immoral-up) arrangement. In Experiment 2, a spatial iconicity judgment task was conducted to investigate the effect of linguistic symbols on the processing of moral word pairs. Twenty-seven participants were chosen to distinguish the iconicity of the moral word pairs, which may belong to an antonym or not. The EEG signals and the reaction times during both experiments were recorded.

The results showed that when Chinese moral antonyms were arranged against their spatial iconicity (e.g. moral-down & immoral-up), the processing of the antonymous relationship induced a larger N400 than the arrangement that was coherent with the spatial iconicity (e.g. moral-up & immoral-down). Furthermore, the judgment of the antonymous relationship was slower for the antonym pairs in a reverse-iconic arrangement than in an iconic arrangement. The results also showed that the Chinese word pairs, which did not have antonyms (e.g. trust - evil), induced a larger N200 and N700 than the antonym pairs (e.g. incorrupt - corrupt) did. Moreover, the reaction time of the iconicity judgment to the word pairs that did not belong to antonyms was slower than that of the antonym pairs. The results of the two experiments revealed that regardless of the task, the embodied and linguistic symbols contributed to spatial iconicity. Nevertheless, the mechanisms of the two symbols were different.

This study explored the spatial iconicity of abstract moral concepts, the roles of the embodied symbols and the linguistic symbols in shaping spatial iconicity. The results showed that (1) abstract moral concepts had a similar spatial iconicity to concrete concepts, which could be achieved by mapping the metaphors. (2) Furthermore, embodied and linguistic symbols were involved in shaping spatial iconicity regardless of the task. (3) When processing moral words, the linguistic symbols were activated to influence the process. The embodied symbols would only be activated and take effect in the middle of the process.

Key words: morality, spatial iconicity, embodied cognition, linguistic symbol, vertical metaphor

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