Frontiers in Psychology, in press. PMCID: PMC 4400858
The scope of reference of a word’s meaning can be highly variable. We present a novel paradigm to investigate the ﬂexible interpretation of word meaning. We focus on quantiﬁers such as “many” or “few,” a class of words that depends on number knowledge but can be interpreted in a ﬂexible manner. Healthy young adults performed a truth value judgment task on pictorial arrays of varying amounts of blue and yellow circles, deciding whether the sentence “Many/few of the circles are yellow” was an adequate description of the stimulus. The study consisted of two experiments, one focusing on “many,” one on “few.” Each experiment had three blocks. In a ﬁrst “baseline” block, each individual’s criterion for “many” and “few” was assessed. In a second “adaptation” block, subjects received feedback about their decisions that was different from their initial judgments in an effort to evaluate the ﬂexibility of a subject’s interpretation. A third “test” block assessed whether adaptation of quantiﬁer meaning induced in block 2 then was generalized to alter a subject’s baseline meaning for “many” and “few.” In Experiment 1, a proportion of yellow circles as small as 40% was reinforced as “many”; in Experiment 2, a proportion of yellow circles as large as 60% was reinforced as “few.” Subjects learned the new criterion for “many” in Experiment 1, which also affected their criterion for “few” although it had never been mentioned. Likewise, in Experiment 2, subjects changed their criterion for “few,” with a comparable effect on the criterion for “many” which was not mentioned. Thus, the meaning of relational quantiﬁers like “many” and “few” is ﬂexible and can be adapted. Most importantly, adapting the criterion for one quantiﬁer (e.g., “many”) also appeared to affect the reciprocal quantiﬁer (in this case, “few”). Implications of this result for psychological interventions and for investigations of the neurobiology of the language-number interface are discussed.