Weight matters: The role of physical weight in non-physical language across age and culture


Languages commonly use physical properties to discuss non-physical states and events in the world. We investigate the degree to which human associations between physical properties and abstract concepts are culturally specific constructs. To do this, we tested three distinct populations—US adults, US children, and adults from an indigenous group in the lowlands of Bolivia, the Tsimane'—on their associations between the physical concept of weight, and a variety of abstract attributes (e.g., importance, emotional state, moral worth). We find a strong relationship between US and Tsimane' adults, but little-to-no relationship between US children and either adult population. This suggests that the concept of weight plays a similar role in everyday thought across cultures, but takes time to develop. We found that these associations could not be recovered from a simple semantic embedding analysis, suggesting that the cross-cultural connections between physical and abstract attributes may be learned through more than language alone.

Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society
Tomer Ullman
Primary Investigator

My research focuses on the structure and origin of knowledge, guided by perspectives and methods from cognitive science, cognitive development, and computational modeling. By combining these, I hope to better understand the form and development of the basic commonsense reasoning that guides our interaction with the world and the people in it.