Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


UCLA Previously Published Works bannerUCLA

The lexical fallacy in emotion research: Mistaking vernacular words for psychological entities.


Vernacular lexemes appear self-evident, so we unwittingly reify them. But the words and phrases of natural languages comprise a treacherous basis for identifying valid psychological constructs, as I illustrate in emotion research. Like other vernacular lexemes, the emotion labels in natural languages do not have definite, stable, mutually transparent meanings, and any one vernacular word may be used to denote multiple scientifically distinct entities. In addition, the consequential choice of one lexeme to name a scientific construct rather than any of its partial synonyms is often arbitrary. Furthermore, a given vernacular lexeme from any one of the world's 7000 languages rarely maps one-to-one into an exactly corresponding vernacular lexeme in other languages. Words related to anger in different languages illustrate this. Since each language constitutes a distinct taxonomy of things in the world, most or all languages must fail to cut nature at its joints. In short, it is pernicious to use one language's dictionary as the source of psychological constructs. So scientists need to coin new technical names for scientifically derived constructs-names precisely defined in terms of the constellation of features or components that characterize the constructs they denote. The development of the kama muta construct illustrates one way to go about this. Kama muta is the emotion evoked by sudden intensification of communal sharing-universally experienced but not isomorphic with any vernacular lexeme such as heart warming, moving, touching, collective pride, tender, nostalgic, sentimental, Awww-so cute!. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

Many UC-authored scholarly publications are freely available on this site because of the UC's open access policies. Let us know how this access is important for you.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View