Concreteness and Psychological Distance in Natural Language Use
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Existing evidence shows that more abstract mental representations are formed and more abstract language is used to characterize phenomena that are more distant from the self. Yet the precise form of the functional relationship between distance and linguistic abstractness is unknown. In four studies, we tested whether more abstract language is used in textual references to more geographically distant cities (Study 1), time points further into the past or future (Study 2), references to more socially distant people (Study 3), and references to a specific topic (Study 4). Using millions of linguistic productions from thousands of social-media users, we determined that linguistic concreteness is a curvilinear function of the logarithm of distance, and we discuss psychological underpinnings of the mathematical properties of this relationship. We also demonstrated that gradient curvilinear effects of geographic and temporal distance on concreteness are nearly identical, which suggests uniformity in representation of abstractness along multiple dimensions.
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