Emergence of Covid‐19 as a Novel Concept Shifts Existing Semantic Spaces

Cognitive Science 47 (1):e13237 (2023)
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Abstract

Conceptual knowledge is dynamic, fluid, and flexible, changing as a function of contextual factors at multiple scales. The Covid-19 pandemic can be considered a large-scale, global context that has fundamentally altered most people's experiences with the world. It has also introduced a new concept, COVID (or COVID-19), into our collective knowledgebase. What are the implications of this introduction for how existing conceptual knowledge is structured? Our collective emotional and social experiences with the world have been profoundly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and experience-based perspectives on concept representation suggest that emotional and social experiences are critical components of conceptual knowledge. Such changes in collective experience should, then, have downstream consequences on knowledge of emotion- and social-related concepts. Using a naturally occurring dataset derived from the social media platform Twitter, we show that semantic spaces for concepts related to our emotional experiences with Covid-19 (i.e., emotional concepts like FEAR)—but not for unrelated concepts (i.e., animals like CAT)—show quantifiable shifts as a function of the emergence of COVID-19 as a concept and its associated emotional and social experiences, shifts which persist 6 months after the onset of the pandemic. The findings support a dynamic view of conceptual knowledge wherein shared experiences affect conceptual structure.

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