What makes a best exemplar?

This paper is part of a broader multilingual research project that addresses the relationships between affective phenomena (as units of personal experience), concepts (as units of cognitive processing) and the lexical items we use in talking about affective experience (as units of verbal communication. The focus will be here on data obtained in six Scandinavian and Romance languages (N=1093) with the help of a reasoning task that supplemented a free listing and a ranking task. The task was specifically designed for assessing whether informants’ choice of best (or most typical) exemplars of a superordinate category in the affective domain relies on a similarity-based strategy of attribute matching and family resemblance computation as suggested by prototype theory. As a consequence, the instructions were formulated so to encourage the use of a similarity-based comparison in justifying the choice of best exemplars. The responses provided by the informants show instead that participants may resort to a variety of alternative criteria (frequency, complexity, basicness, intensity, cultural or personal meaning, etc.) for assigning best-exemplar status. It is contended that such alternative criteria are consistent with a theory- (or knowledge-) based approach to concepts and categorization and that a hybrid, multi-strategy approach is more suitable in order to account for categorization in the affective domain.

Keywords: emotions, categorization, prototype, knowledge-based, Scandinavian, Romance


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