Categorizing Objects in Isolation and in Scenes: What a Superordinate Is Good For

Gregory L. Murphy, Edward J. Wisniewski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many studies have shown that subjects are faster at categorizing objects into "basic" concepts than into more general superordinate concepts. However, all of these studies have used a categorization task in which single, isolated objects are identified. There is good reason to believe that superordinate concepts are typically used to refer to collections of objects rather than to individual objects. For example, people more often use the term furniture to refer to a number of pieces of furniture rather than to name a single piece. This suggests that superordinate concepts include information about multiple objects and their common relations, particularly the typical scenes in which such objects appear. Four experiments examined this possibility by investigating whether the basic concept advantage will decrease or reverse itself when subjects are asked to catergorize an object as part of a scene. The results showed that the basic-superordinate difference did decrease when subjects categorized objects in scenes. Furthermore, when an object was placed in an inappropriate scene, there was more interference for superordinate identifications. The results suggest qualitative differences in the representations of superordinate and basic concepts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)572-586
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1989

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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