New York, New York: Study determines difference between abstract and concrete jungle

February 8, 2008

The Big Apple, a densely populated metropolis of more than 8.2 million people in the 332 square miles of blocks, boroughs and buildings, could have been named metaphorically by outsiders as a fertile land of opportunity. New York City, in other words, can be considered concretely as a geographical location with a large population, but it also can be viewed symbolically as the gateway to America.

While both of these descriptions are accurate, they are based on an individual’s perception of, and even physical distance from, the city. Princeton psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer and graduate student Adam Alter argue that people tend to perceive objects as being more abstract when those stimuli are difficult to process mentally, known as cognitive disfluency, or are physically further away.

“But a stimulus does not need to be in Los Angeles for a New Yorker to construe it abstractly,” explained Alter. “When a stimulus feels far away, even when it isn’t actually far away, it also might seem more abstract.” This psychological distance to which the author refers can be manipulated using a vague stimulus, such as an italicized font. In the first study of the series, the psychologists already had shown that italicized and other disfluent fonts prompted the sensation of psychological distance.

A second study supported this phenomenon when the psychologists asked questions related to New York City in disfluent fonts. As predicted, the participants tended to answer with more abstract comments than those who received clearly printed questions. In another experiment, participants played the game Balderdash, which required them to generate definitions for obscure English words. The psychologists discovered that participants created more abstract definitions for hard to pronounce words like euneirophrenia than for familiar sounding words, such as beestings.

The results, which appear in the February 2008 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, show that cognitive disfluency can be caused by psychological as well as physical distance. Using this research-based theory, it is safe to assume, therefore, that people residing in Tokyo have a more symbolic notion of New York than New Yorkers have of themselves.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Why being bilingual helps keep your brain fit

Related Stories

Why being bilingual helps keep your brain fit

August 8, 2016

In a café in south London, two construction workers are engaged in cheerful banter, tossing words back and forth. Their cutlery dances during more emphatic gesticulations and they occasionally break off into loud guffaws. ...

The do-nothing dilemma—surveillance vs. surgery for cancer

August 2, 2016

Imagine for a moment that you have a tiny but worrisome lung nodule or, say, a growing bulge in a crucial blood vessel. You have no choice but to continue with normal life: going to work, running errands, paying taxes, negotiating ...

Research shows how visual perception slows with age

June 21, 2016

Grandparents may be some of the best storytellers around, in the sense that they usually have plenty of stories to tell. What they're not always as good at, however, is staying on topic when they regale others with their ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Cow embryos reveal new type of chromosome chimera

May 27, 2016

I've often wondered what happens between the time an egg is fertilized and the time the ball of cells that it becomes nestles into the uterine lining. It's a period that we know very little about, a black box of developmental ...

Shaving time to test antidotes for nerve agents

February 29, 2016

Imagine you wanted to know how much energy it took to bike up a mountain, but couldn't finish the ride to the peak yourself. So, to get the total energy required, you and a team of friends strap energy meters to your bikes ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.