Prototype theory

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Prototype theory is a mode of graded categorization in cognitive science, where some members of a category are more central than others. For example, when asked to give an example of the concept furniture, chair is more frequently cited than, say, stool. Prototype theory has also been applied in linguistics, as part of the mapping from phonological structure to semantics.


As formulated in the 1970s by Eleanor Rosch and others[citation needed] , prototype theory was a radical departure from traditional necessary and sufficient conditions as in Aristotelian logic, which led to set-theoretic approaches of extensional or intensional semantics. Thus instead of a definition based model—e.g. a bird may be defined as elements with the features [+feathers], [+beak] and [+ability to fly]—prototype theory would consider a category like bird as consisting of different elements which have unequal status and, therefore, a robin is considered to be more prototypical of a bird than, say, a penguin (which, for instance) can't fly). This leads to a graded notion of categories, which is a central notion in many models of cognitive science and cognitive semantics, e.g. in the work of George Lakoff (Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, 1987) or Ronald Langacker (Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, vol. 1/2 1987/1991).


The term prototype, as defined in Eleanor Rosch's study "Natural Categories" (1973), and was initially defined as denoting a stimulus, which takes a salient position in the formation of a category, due to the fact that it is the first stimulus to be associated with that category. Rosch later defined it as the most central member of a category.


In her 1975 paper, Cognitive Representation of Semantic Categories (J Experimental Psychology v. 104:192-233), Eleanor Rosch asked 200 American college students to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, whether they regarded the following items as a good example of the category furniture. This ranged from chair and sofa, ranked number 1, to a love seat (number 10), to a lamp (number 31), all the way to a telephone, ranked number 60.

While one may differ from this list in terms of cultural specifics, the point is that such a graded categorization is likely to be present in all cultures. Further evidence that some members of a category are more privileged than others came from experiments involving:

1. Response Times: in which queries involving a prototypical members (e.g. is a robin a bird) elicited faster response times than for non-prototypical members.
2. Priming: When primed with the higher-level (superordinate) category, subjects were faster in identifying if two words are the same. Thus, after flashing furniture, the equivalence of chair-chair is detected more rapidly than stove-stove.
3. Exemplars: When asked to name a few exemplars, the more prototypical items came up more frequently.

Subsequent to Rosch's work, prototype effects have been investigated widely in areas such as colour cognition (Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, 1969), and also for more abstract notions. Subjects may be asked, e.g. "to what degree is this narrative an instance of telling a lie?" [Coleman/Kay:1981]. Similarly work has been done on actions (verbs like look, kill, speak, walk [Pulman:83]), adjectives like "tall" [Dirven/Taylor:88], etc.

Another aspect in which Prototype Theory departs from traditional Aristotelian categorization is that there do not appear to be natural kind categories (bird, dog) vs. artifacts (toys, vehicles).

A common comparison is the use of prototype or the use of exemplars in category classification. Medin, Altom, and Murphy (1984) found that using a mixture of prototype and exemplar information, participants were more accurately able to judge categories. Participants who were presented with prototype values classified based on similarity to stored prototypes and stored exemplars, whereas participants who only had experience with exemplar only relied on the similarity to stored exemplars. Smith and Minda (2002) looked at the use of prototypes and exemplars in dot-pattern category learning. They found that participants used more prototypes than they used exemplars, with the prototypes being the center of the category, and exemplars surrounding it.

Basic level categories[edit]

The other notion related to prototypes is that of a basic level in cognitive categorization. When asked What are you sitting on?, most subjects prefer to say chair rather than a subordinate such as kitchen chair or a superordinate such as furniture. Basic categories are relatively homogeneous in terms of sensory-motor affordances — a chair is associated with bending of one's knees, a fruit with picking it up and putting it in your mouth, etc. At the subordinate level (e.g. [dentist's chairs], [kitchen chairs] etc.) hardly any significant features can be added to that of the basic level; whereas at the superordinate level, these conceptual similarities are hard to pinpoint. A picture of a chair is easy to draw (or visualize), but drawing furniture would be difficult.

Rosch (1978) defines the basic level as that level that has the highest degree of cue validity. Thus, a category like [animal] may have a prototypical member, but no cognitive visual representation. On the other hand, basic categories in [animal], i.e. [dog], [bird], [fish], are full of informational content and can easily be categorized in terms of Gestalt and semantic features.

Clearly semantic models based on attribute-value pairs fail to identify privileged levels in the hierarchy. Functionally, it is thought that basic level categories are a decomposition of the world into maximally informative categories. Thus, they

  • maximize the number of attributes shared by members of the category, and
  • minimize the number of attributes shared with other categories

However, the notion of Basic Level is problematic, e.g. whereas dog as a basic category is a species, bird or fish are at a higher level, etc. Similarly, the notion of frequency is very closely tied to the basic level, but is hard to pinpoint.

More problems arise when the notion of a prototype is applied to lexical categories other than the noun. Verbs, for example, seem to defy a clear prototype: [to run] is hard to split up in more or less central members.

Prototype and category formation and autism[edit]

Autism has been shown to affect category and prototype formation. Gastgeb, Dundas, Minshew, and Strauss (2011) found that adults with high-functioning autism had difficulty forming categories and prototypes for dot patterns. Compared to those without autism, the pattern of results was the same, but overall performance of the autism groups was significantly lower.

Individuals with autism have also been shown to have differences in the formation of prototypes for faces. Gatsgeb, Wilkinson, Minshew, and Strauss (2011), in a separate study from the above, found that adults with high-functioning autism have significant difficulty in forming prototypes for faces. After shown a series of faces based on prototypes faces, those with autism had a harder time identifying the prototype faces than those without autism.

Children with autism also show prototype effects. Molesworth, Bowler, and Hampton (2008) found that two-thirds of their sample of autistic children with high-functioning autism did not show diminished prototype effects, while one-third showed no prototype effects. Molesworth, Bowler, and Hampton (2005) found signs of the prototype effect is children with autism and Asperger syndrome showed signs of prototype effects, yet the effects were not diminished from children without autism or Asperger syndrome.

Distance between concepts[edit]

The notion of prototypes is related to Wittgenstein's (later) discomfort with the traditional notion of category. This influential theory has resulted in a view of semantic components more as possible rather than necessary contributors to the meaning of texts. His discussion on the category game is particularly incisive (Philosophical Investigations 66, 1953):

Consider for example the proceedings that we call 'games'. I mean board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don't say, "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games'"--but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all 'amusing'? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

Clearly, the notion of family resemblance is calling for a notion of conceptual distance, which is closely related to the idea of graded sets, but there are problems as well.

Recently, Peter Gärdenfors (2004) has elaborated a possible partial explanation of prototype theory in terms of multi-dimensional feature spaces called conceptual spaces, where a category is defined in terms of a conceptual distance. More central members of a category are "between" the peripheral members. He postulates that most natural categories exhibit a convexity in conceptual space, in that if x and y are elements of a category, and if z is between x and y, then z is also likely to belong to the category.

However, in the notion of game above, is there a single prototype or several? Recent linguistic data from colour studies seem to indicate that categories may have more than one focal element—e.g. the Tsonga colour term rihlaza refers to a green-blue continuum, but appears to have two prototypes, a focal blue, and a focal green. Thus, it is possible to have single categories with multiple, disconnected, prototypes, in which case they may constitute the union of several convex sets rather than a single one.

Combining categories[edit]

All around us, we find instances where objects like tall man or small elephant combine one or more categories. This was a problem for extensional semantics, where the semantics of a word such as red is to be defined as the set of objects having this property. Clearly, this does not apply so well to modifiers such as small; a small mouse is very different from a small elephant.

These combinations pose a lesser problem in terms of prototype theory. In situations involving adjectives (e.g. tall), one encounters the question of whether or not the prototype of [tall] is a 6 foot tall man, or a 400-foot skyscraper [Dirven and Taylor 1988]. The solution emerges by contextualizing the notion of prototype in terms of the object being modified. This extends even more radically in compounds such as red wine or red hair which are hardly red in the prototypical sense, but the red indicates merely a shift from the prototypical colour of wine or hair respectively. This corresponds to de Saussure's notion of concepts as purely differential: "non pas positivement par leur contenu, mais negativement par leurs rapports avec les autres termes du systeme" [p. 162; not positively, in terms of their content, but negatively by contrast with other terms in the same system (tr. Harris 83)].

Other problems remain—e.g. in determining which of the constituent categories will contribute which feature? In the example of a "pet bird" [Hampton 97], pet provides the habitat of the compound (cage rather than the wild), whereas bird provides the skin type (feathers rather than fur).

See also[edit]


  • Berlin, B. & Kay, P. (1969): Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, Berkeley.
  • Dirven, R. & Taylor, J. R. (1988): "The conceptualisation of vertical Space in English: The Case of Tall", in: Rudzka-Ostyn, B.(ed): Topics in Cognitive Linguistics. Amsterdam.
  • Gatsgeb, H. Z., Dundas, E. M., Minshew, M. J., & Strauss, M. S. (2012). Category formation in autism: Can individuals with autism form categories and prototypes of dot patterns?. Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, 42(8), 1694-1704. doi: 10.1007/s10803-011-1411-x
  • Gatsgeb, H. Z., Wilkinson, D. A., Minshew, M. J., & Strauss, M. S. (2011). Can individuals with autism abstract prototypes of natural faces?. Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, 41(12), 1609-1618. doi: 10.1007/s10803-011-1190-4
  • Gärdenfors, P. (2004): Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought, MIT Press.
  • Lakoff, G. (1987): Women, fire and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind, London.
  • Medin, D. L., Altom, M. W., & Murphy, T. D. (1984). Given versus induced category representations: Use of prototype and exemplar information in classification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 10(3), 333-352. doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.10.3.333
  • Molesworth, C. J., Bowler, D. M., & Hamptom, J. A. (2005). Extracting prototypes from exemplars what can corpus data tell us about concept representation?. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46(6), 661-672. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00383.x
  • Molesworth, C. J., Bowler, D. M., & Hamptom, J. A. (2008). When prototypes are not best: Judgments made by children with autism. Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, 38(9), 1721-1730. doi: 10.1007/s10803-008-0557-7
  • Loftus, E.F., "Spreading Activation Within Semantic Categories: Comments on Rosch’s “Cognitive Representations of Semantic Categories”", Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol.104, No.3, (September 1975), p.234-240.
  • Rosch, E., "Classification of Real-World Objects: Origins and Representations in Cognition", pp. 212–222 in Johnson-Laird, P.N. & Wason, P.C., Thinking: Readings in Cognitive Science, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge), 1977.
  • Rosch, E. (1975): “Cognitive Reference Points”, Cognitive Psychology 7, 532-547.
  • Rosch, E., "Cognitive Representations of Semantic Categories", Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol.104, No.3, (September 1975), pp. 192–233.
  • Rosch, E.H. (1973): "Natural categories", Cognitive Psychology 4, 328-350.
  • Rosch, E., "Principles of Categorization", pp. 27–48 in Rosch, E. & Lloyd, B.B. (eds), Cognition and Categorization, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, (Hillsdale), 1978.
  • Rosch, E., "Prototype Classification and Logical Classification: The Two Systems", pp. 73–86 in Scholnick, E.K. (ed), New Trends in Conceptual Representation: Challenges to Piaget’s Theory?, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, 1983.
  • Rosch, E., "Reclaiming Concepts", Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol.6, Nos.11-12, (November/December 1999), pp. 61–77.
  • Rosch, E., "Reply to Loftus", Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol.104, No.3, (September 1975), pp. 241–243.
  • Rosch, E. & Mervis, C.B., "Family Resemblances: Studies in the Internal Structure of Categories", Cognitive Psychology, Vol.7, No.4, (October 1975), pp. 573–605.
  • Rosch, E., Mervis, C.B., Gray, W., Johnson, D., & Boyes-Braem, P., Basic Objects in Natural Categories, Working Paper No.43, Language Behaviour Research Laboratory, University of California (Berkeley), 1975.
  • Rosch, E., Mervis, C.B., Gray, W., Johnson, D., & Boyes-Braem, P., "Basic Objects in Natural Categories", Cognitive Psychology, Vol.8, No.3, (July 1976), pp. 382–439.
  • Smith, J. D., & Minda, J. P. (2002). Distinguishing prototype-based and exemplar-based processes in dot-pattern category learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 28(4), 1433-1458. doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.31.6.1433
  • Taylor, J. R.(2003): Linguistic Categorization, Oxford University Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations (Philosophische Untersuchungen), Blackwell Publishers, 2001 (ISBN 0-631-23127-7).