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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Characterizing Variability in Shared Meaning through Millions of Sketches


The study of mental representations of concepts has historically focused on the representations of the “average” person. Here, we shift away from this aggregate view and examine the principles of variability across people in conceptual representations. Using a database of millions of sketches by people worldwide, we ask what predicts whether people converge or diverge in their representations of a specific concept, and which kinds of concepts tend to be more or less variable. We find that larger and more dense populations tend to have less variable representations, and concepts high in valence and arousal tend to be less variable across people. Further, two countries tend to have people with more similar conceptual representations when they are linguistically, geographically, and culturally similar. Our work provides the first characterization of the principles of variability in shared meaning across a large, diverse sample of participants.

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