Abstract concepts: external influences, internal constraints, and methodological issues

Anna M. Borghi, Samuel Shaki, Martin H. Fischer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


There is a longstanding and widely held misconception about the relative remoteness of abstract concepts from concrete experiences. This review examines the current evidence for external influences and internal constraints on the processing, representation, and use of abstract concepts, like truth, friendship, and number. We highlight the theoretical benefit of distinguishing between grounded and embodied cognition and then ask which roles do perception, action, language, and social interaction play in acquiring, representing and using abstract concepts. By reviewing several studies, we show that they are, against the accepted definition, not detached from perception and action. Focussing on magnitude-related concepts, we also discuss evidence for cultural influences on abstract knowledge and explore how internal processes such as inner speech, metacognition, and inner bodily signals (interoception) influence the acquisition and retrieval of abstract knowledge. Finally, we discuss some methodological developments. Specifically, we focus on the importance of studies that investigate the time course of conceptual processing and we argue that, because of the paramount role of sociality for abstract concepts, new methods are necessary to study concepts in interactive situations. We conclude that bodily, linguistic, and social constraints provide important theoretical limitations for our theories of conceptual knowledge.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2370-2388
Number of pages19
JournalPsychological Research
Issue number8
StatePublished - Nov 2022


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