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Chapter 7 Thought, Language, and Intelligence
processes allow you to think about new information in relation to knowledge that is already
stored in your long-term memory. Once the information has been elaborated in this way,
you must decide what to do with it. This third stage—decision making—demands attention, too. Your decision might be to store the information or to take some action. If the
decision is to act, it is at this stage that you plan what to do. In the fourth and fifth stages,
the action is carried out. Your action usually affects the environment, providing new
information that is “fed back” to the system for processing in the ongoing circle of thought.
Mental Representations: The Ingredients
of Thought
䉴 What are thoughts made of?
Just as measuring, stirring, and baking are only part of the story of cookie making,
describing the processes of thinking tells only part of the story behind the circle of
thought. Psychologists usually describe the ingredients of thought as information. But
that is like saying that you make cookies with “stuff.” What specific forms can information take in our minds? Cognitive psychologists have found that information can be
mentally represented in many ways, including as concepts, propositions, schemas, scripts,
mental models, images, and cognitive maps. Let’s explore these ingredients of thought
and how people manipulate them as they think.
When you think about anything—dogs, happiness, sex, movies, pizza—you are manipulating a basic ingredient of thought called concepts. Concepts are categories of objects,
events, or ideas with common properties. Some concepts, such as “round” and “red,”
are visual and concrete. Concepts such as “truth” and “justice” are more abstract and
harder to define. “To have a concept” is to recognize the properties, or features, that
tend to be shared by members of a category. For example, the concept of “bird” includes
such properties as having feathers, laying eggs, and being able to fly. The concept of
“scissors” includes such properties as having two blades, a connecting hinge, and a pair
of finger holes. Concepts allow you to relate each object or event you encounter to a
category that you already know. Using concepts, you can say, “No, that is not a dog,”
or “Yes, that is a car.” Concepts also make it possible for you to think logically. If you
have the concepts “whale” and “bird,” you can decide whether a whale is a bird without having either creature in the room with you.
Some concepts—called formal concepts—clearly define
objects or events by a set of rules and properties, so that every member of the concept
has all of the concept’s defining properties and nonmembers do not. For instance, the
concept “square” can be defined as “a shape with four equal sides and four right-angle
corners.” Any object that does not have all of these features is simply not a square.
Formal concepts are often used to study concept learning in the laboratory, because the
members of these concepts can be neatly defined (Trabasso & Bower, 1968).
In contrast, try to define the concepts “home” or “game.” You might say
learn that “home” is the place where you live, and that a “game” is a competition
doing between players. However, some people define “home” as the place they were
born, and solitaire is a card game even though it involves only one player. These are
just two examples of natural concepts. Unlike formal concepts, natural concepts don’t
have a fixed set of defining features. Instead, natural concepts have a set of typical or
characteristic features, and members don’t need to have all of them. For example, the
ability to fly is a characteristic feature of the natural concept “bird,” but an ostrich is
still a bird even though it can’t fly. It is a bird because it has enough other characteristic features of “bird” (such as feathers and wings). Having just one bird property is
Types of Concepts
concepts Categories of objects, events,
or ideas that have common properties.
formal concepts Concepts that can be
clearly defined by a set of rules or
natural concepts Concepts that have
no fixed set of defining features but
instead share a set of characteristic
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