What do you mean? Semantic disagreements as a source of misunderstandings

Author: Juan F. Trillo, PhD in Linguistics and Philosophy (U. Autónoma de Madrid), PhD in Literary Studies (U. Complutense de Madrid).

Photo: Felicia Buitenwerf /Unsplash

Among the many features that differentiate us from other animals, one of the most striking is our ability to communicate. No other species has developed such an elaborate and effective language for exchanging information with its fellows, to the point that the communicative process has become the critical element that sustains our entire civilization. From this point of view, we could well consider the human being as a “communicative animal”. However, at the same time, this process is in itself imperfect, deficient, for various reasons that are well known today, one of the most important of which is semantic disagreements. Each of us assigns to words meanings that do not always coincide and sometimes differ widely.

Even in scientific fields, where precision is a highly valued virtue, it is possible to find examples of this diversity in terms such as “species”, “life” or “intelligence”. In the social field, the divergence is, of course, much more pronounced and a source of controversy whose origin lies in the peculiar interpretation that the interlocutors make of particularly sensitive concepts: “equality”, “peace” or “right to bear arms”.

In the recent essay, “Latent Diversity in Human Concepts” published by the journal Open Mind, the results of the study carried out on this issue by a team of psychologists from the University of California, Berkeley, are made public. Previous studies, such as the one published some time ago by Tucker and Messick (1) in which, using multidimensional scaling statistical methods, they established significant differences in the points of view of the individuals under study, and other more recent ones, such as Barsalou (2), Hampton and Passanisi (3) or Koriat and Sorka (4), demonstrated the existence of conceptual divergences, although they did not quantify the degree of population variation.

For their part, the group of Californian researchers comprising Luis Marti, Shengyi Wu, Steven T. Piantadosi and Celeste Kidd, started from the assumption that these divergences have their origin in the experiences accumulated by individuals throughout their lives and the way in which each person processes these experiences according to his or her cognitive and learning particularities. When conducting their study, the team of psychologists focused on collecting data about the meanings that the individuals participating in the experiments attributed in the areas of similarity and features. In the first case, the aim was to determine whether, for example, a penguin is more similar to a chicken or to a whale, while in the second, participants had to answer questions such as whether or not a penguin seemed “majestic” to them.

As for the semantic fields from which they drew the contrasting words, the researchers chose two, animals and politicians, correctly assuming that in the former they would find a broader consensus than in the latter, the latter being influenced by the personal convictions of each participant.

On the other hand, the participants —gathered through the Amazon Mechanical Turk website, all of them over 18 years old, fluent English speakers and residents of the United States— had to decide which animal or politician was most similar to a given target concept and also, and this is equally significant, they had to make an assumption about the percentage of the population that agreed with their point of view.

Left: Probabilities that there is a single conceptual representation for each word, showing zero values for all words, especially for politicians. Middle: probability that two random individuals share meanings, showing low values of agreement in the case of politicians and slightly higher in the case of animals. Right: showing that the analyzed individuals have to overestimate the likelihood of agreement with others, with the line y=x dividing the individuals’ prediction (y-axis) and the actual responses (x-axis).

In the first experiment, half of the 1,799 participants were asked to make judgments about similarities between animals (finch, robin, chicken, eagle, ostrich, penguin, salmon, seal, dolphin and whale) and the other half to do the same about politicians (Abraham Lincoln, Joe Biden, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton).

In the second experiment, divided into two parts, they had to assign, first, ten adjectives to each of the ten animals mentioned in the previous experiment and ten adjectives to each of the politicians. Subsequently, they had to decide whether one of the animals or politicians corresponded to an adjective offered by the researchers, for example: “Is a finch smart?“, questions to which they had to answer with a “yes” or “no“.

Again predictably, certain characteristics elicited greater agreement than others. Participants agreed that seals are “featherless” and “slippery”, but considerably less so on aspects such as whether or not they are “smart“.

In conclusion, the study provides statistical evidence of conceptual diversity and the attribution of meanings to a given word, even among speakers of the same language. The researchers deduce that the differences should be much wider to the extent that the population samples are less homogeneous than the one chosen for the experiment. According to them, the results help to explain the high level of disagreement in social and political debates, since the interlocutors sometimes do not even share the meaning of certain words.

Perhaps the most relevant element of the whole study, however, is the demonstration that most of us are not even aware of the extent to which the meanings we attribute to words and concepts vary from one person to another. In certain cases, for example, participants were convinced that their opinion was shared by the majority of the population, when, in fact, the opposite was true.

This work also provides valuable food for thought for those who, in the field of teaching, must determine the content of curricula. To the extent that those of us in society share the meaning of words, the greater the possibility of reaching an understanding on issues under debate. It also opens the door to new and more ambitious studies focused on conceptual and semantic diversity among heterogeneous social groups belonging to different cultures.


  1. Tucker, L. R., & Messick, S. (1963). An individual differences model for multidimensional scaling. Psychometrika, 28(4), 333367. doi: 10.1007/BF02289557

  1. Barsalou, L. W. (1987). The instability of graded structure: Implications for the nature of concepts. In U. Neisser (Ed.), Concepts and conceptual development: Ecological and intellectual factors in categorization (pp. 101–140). Cambridge University Press.

  1. Hampton, J. A., & Passanisi, A. (2016). When intensions do not map onto extensions: Individual differences in conceptualization. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42(4), 505523. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000198 , PubMed: 26551627

  1. Koriat, A., & Sorka, H. (2015). The construction of categorization judgments: Using subjective confidence and response latency to test a distributed model. Cognition, 134, 2138. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.09.009 , PubMed: 25460376

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