9309997 PILGRIM One fundamental feature of language is that seemingly arbitrary stimuli, such as spoken or written words, are treated as if they are equivalent to environmental referents. Similarly, responses to both a written word (e.g., a newspaper's forecast of rain) and a spoken word (e.g., a weatherman's "Rain") may closely resemble responses to the actual event (e.g., the rain itself). These sorts of relations seem to be implied whenever we speak of symbolic function. Despite their arbitrary nature, however, the particular symbolic relations that comprise any given language are relatively standardized and unchanging. Furthermore, preliminary data suggest that some dimensions of symbolic relations may be particularly resistant to change. An interesting question to be asked of basic symbolic (or equivalence) relations, then, concerns their flexibility. Under what conditions will symbolic relations be changed, disrupted, or abandoned? The present research will investigate the nature of symbolic relations by focusing on their stability, once established. The primary objective of this research is to discover the conditions under which symbolic relations are likely to change. In a series of four experiments, college-student subjects seated in front of a computer display will be taught a "mini-language" or symbol system by training relations between abstract figures. Once symbolic relations are demonstrated (as determined by a specified pattern of responding on standardized test-trial arrangements known as stimulus equivalence), experiences that contrast with or disconfirm the originally established relations will be arranged. For example, in one experiment subjects will be penalized for showing one of the originally-trained relations. Subsequent tests will reveal whether the programmed challenges have altered the original symbolic relations. Attempting to disrupt established symbolic relations will increase our understanding of the conditions under which natural language classes are able to accommodate change, as well as the conditions under which modification of established relations is unlikely. Not only may such information be of value in understanding basic language processes, but efforts to teach language skills may be strengthened by findings related to potential sources of disruption. ***

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jasmine V. Young
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University of North Carolina at Wilmington
United States
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