Semantic memory redux: An experimental test of hierarchical category representation

Gregory L. Murphy, James A. Hampton, Goran S. Milovanovic

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Four experiments investigated the classic issue in semantic memory of whether people organize categorical information in hierarchies and use inference to retrieve information from them, as proposed by Collins and Quillian (1969). Past evidence has focused on RT to confirm sentences such as “All birds are animals” or “Canaries breathe.” However, confounding variables such as familiarity and associations between the terms have led to contradictory results. Our experiments avoided such problems by teaching subjects novel materials. Experiment 1 tested an implicit hierarchical structure in the features of a set of studied objects (e.g., all brown objects were large). Experiment 2 taught subjects nested categories of artificial bugs. In Experiment 3, subjects learned a tree structure of novel category hierarchies. In all three, the results differed from the predictions of the hierarchical inference model. In Experiment 4, subjects learned a hierarchy by means of paired associates of novel category names. Here we finally found the RT signature of hierarchical inference. We conclude that it is possible to store information in a hierarchy and retrieve it via inference, but it is difficult and avoided whenever possible. The results are more consistent with feature comparison models than hierarchical models of semantic memory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)521-539
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2012


  • Categories
  • Concepts
  • Hierarchies
  • Semantic memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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