Latest discovery: Orenes, Beltrán, & Santamaría, 2014

Isabel Orenes, David Beltran and Carlos Santamaria have discovered that when people are shown an array of figures such as a red, green, yellow and blue figure, and they know the figure can be red or green, and then they are told ‘the figure is not red’ they tend to look at the green figure. But when they are shown the same array of figures and they know the figure can be red or green or yellow or blue, and then they are told ‘the figure is not red’, they tend to look at the red figure. They interpret the result as showing that people can represent negation using symbols in mental models. Their results are published in the Journal of Memory and Language (vol 74, pp. 36-45) under the title ‘How negation is understood: Evidence from the visual world paradigm.’ They summarise their findings in their abstract:

“This paper explores how negation (e.g., the figure is not red) is understood using the visual world paradigm. Our hypothesis is that people will switch to the alternative affirmative (e.g., a green figure) whenever possible, but will be able to maintain the negated argument (e.g., a non-red figure) when needed. To test this, we presented either a specific verbal context (binary: the figure could be red or green) or an unspecified verbal context (multary: the figure could be red or green or yellow or blue). Then, affirmative and negative sentences, e.g., the figure is (not) red) were heard while four figures were shown on the screen and eye movements were monitored. We found that people shifted their visual attention toward the alternative in the binary context, but focused on the negated argument in the multary context. Our findings corroborated our hypothesis and shed light on two issues that are currently under debate about how negation is represented and processed. Regarding representation, our results support the ideas that (1) the negative operator plays a role in the mental representation, and consequently a symbolic representation of negation is possible, and (2) it is not necessary to use a two-step process to represent and understand negation.”

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