Dr. Leon James (formerly Leon A. Jakobovits)
University of Illinois

(c) 1967




When the phenomenon of semantic satiation2 was first reported in the literature around the turn of the century by investigators working in Titchener's Laboratory (Severance & Washburn, 1907), it was described as a curious and isolated effect and referred to as "lapse of meaning." Today we have reasons to believe that semantic satiation and its complementary effect semantic generation3 represent an important aspect of cognitive activity and are intimately related to cognitive functioning in general. In this paper I would 'like to summarize the evidence for this position and outline the role of semantic satiation and generation in cognitive dynamics. In addition, I would like to discuss their implications for education.


In 1960 Lambert and Jakobovits reported a new technique for the measurement of semantic satiation that made use of the semantic differential instrument (Osgood, Suci, & Tannenbaum, 1957).4 Until then, the phenomenon of "lapse of meaning" had been thought of as an all-or-nothing effect. This view was a consequence of the Titchener method of measuring the effect, which consisted of determining the moment at which the meaning of a word would lapse when a subject repeated it out loud or silently to himself. The word would be repeated until, by a prearranged signal, the subject would indicate to the experimenter the moment when its meaning lapsed. Using this method, contemporary investigators (Wertheimer, 1960) discovered that some words retain their meaning longer than others and that it takes longer for the meaning of specific words to lapse for some subjects than for others (Smith & Raygor, 1956).

One result of the use of the semantic differential technique was to introduce the notion of decrease in the intensity of meaning as distinguished from the earlier notion of total meaning lapse. Using the polarity-difference score, it was possible to determine the amount of meaning a word lost after a given period of repetition. The use of the semantic differential technique to study the phenomenon of semantic satiation was consonant with our theoretical position concerning the nature and measurement of meaning (Osgood, 1957).

Earlier, Titchener and more recently Wertheimer (1960) viewed lapse of meaning as a consequence of the dissociation between the sounds of a word and the core meaning ordinarily attached to them. This dissociation was supposedly a result of repeatedly hearing the word in isolation, out of the context of normal usage. Thus, for example, Wertheimer has argued that words whose sounds fit their meaning, such as appears to be the case with onomatopoeia, should retain their meaning longer than other words.

Quite distinguishable from this perceptual-Gestalt approach is our interpretation of semantic satiation as an inhibition-extinction process related to the elicitation of representational mediation reactions identified with the meaning of words. According to this view, verbal repetition is accompanied by repeated and continued elicitation of representational mediation responses identified with meaning; the reactive inhibition thus generated temporarily reduces the intensity of the meaning response. At the same time, extinction of the learned meaning habit may take place, depending on the conditions of repetition. In this paper I intend to speculate not only on the nature of these conditions but also on the consequences of these extinctive effects on cognitive activity.


The concept of semantic satiation implies the notion of a reduction in the intensity of meaning of a word as the organism is repeatedly exposed to it. To measure this effect one needs therefore to determine the intensity of meaning before and after a word has been repeated a predetermined number of times. Intensity of meaning can conveniently be measured by transforming ratings of subjects given to concepts on semantic differential scales (see Lambert & Jakobovits, 1960). It is important to point out that transformed polarity scores must be used as an index of intensity of meaning (See Amster, 1964, and Jakobovits & Lambert, in press). Failure to effect the transformation has led to some confusing results and interpretations (Yelen & Schulz, 1963) as discussed by Amster (1964) and recently demonstrated by Jakobovits and Rice (1967).


It would seem at first that semantic generation and semantic satiation are contradictory phenomena, since at one time repeated exposure leads to an increase in the intensity of meaning and at another time to a decrease. This seeming paradox can be resolved by presenting a frequency law (see Jakobovits & Lambert, 1963, and Jakobovits & Hogenraad, 1967) which states that the relation between the intensity of a response and the frequency of exposure of the stimulus approximates an inverted U-shaped distribution. The rising part of the curve represents the semantic generation phase, indicating an increase in intensity of meaning during the initial stages of repetition. The falling part of the curve represents the semantic satiation phase, indicating a decrease in intensity of meaning as exposure continues. The point where the curve changes inflection is referred to as the "critical point" and marks the stage after which exposure results in an inhibitory rather than a facilitative effect. The exact shape of the frequency curve, which can also be called the "meaning curve," and the locus of the critical point, are assumed to vary with the conditions of repetition and the nature of the response. The following section will attempt to specify some of the factors that determine the shape of this curve.


Since it is held that an immediate antecedent of semantic satiation is the development of cognitive reactive inhibition specifically related to the representational mediation response identified with the stimulus word, both the rate and the amount of repetition ought to affect the shape of the meaning curve. What is less obvious is that a determined amount and rate of verbal repetition may generate varying amounts of reactive inhibition in different individuals.

There are two explanatory factors to be considered here. One is individual differences in susceptibility to biochemical fatigue of the cortical cells involved in repeated firing of cell assemblies in cognitive activity. The other is an attentional factor connected with an individual's capacity to focus persistently on the word that is being repeated. I have referred to this elsewhere (Jakobovits & Lambert, in press) as the oscillation hypothesis to emphasize the variable nature of the attentive process.

As is well known, it is possible to engage in echoic behavior, such as automatic reading during prayer or moments of so-called "absentmindedness," without paying attention to or comprehending what is being read. We have here an instance of a perceptual-motor skill with, as Osgood (1957) has put it, "the representational system being temporarily disconnected" (p. 358). A subject who repeats a word out loud while thinking about something else is in effect by-passing the representational meaning system, and little reactive inhibition of the meaning response is to be expected. Under these circumstances, the simple relationship between amount and rate of verbal repetition and semantic satiation should not hold. Lambert and Jakobovits (1960) have pointed out that:

In order to satiate the meaning of a symbol through continuous repetition, some particular cognitive activity which is related to the symbol must consistently be called into play (p. 382).

One can easily imagine that, given an oscillation pattern during verbal repetition between moments of effective elicitation of the meaning response and moments of short-circuiting it, a facilitative effect may ensue that would result in semantic generation (see Telford, 1931). In previous experiments with 15-second repetition periods and rates of repetition of two to three per second, the following distribution of meaning change scores was obtained: about 65% of the ratings were of the semantic satiation type, about 25% were of the semantic generation type, and about 10% did not change. It may be that these ratios represent the typical oscillation pattern for most subjects under these experimental conditions. By using proper instructions and simultaneous tasks involving competing attentional sets, it should be possible to manipulate experimentally the consistency with which a specific representational process is elicited during verbal repetition. The ratio of semantic changes obtained under these conditions would constitute a direct test of the oscillation hypothesis.

If these speculations have any validity, then they have certain important consequences for understanding the relationship between cognitive functioning and general personality traits. Other writers [as early as Pavlov (1927), and more recently Eysenck (1955), Wertheimer & Wertheimer (1954), and Spitz & Lipman (1961)] have attempted to relate certain personality traits to cortical inhibition. Although the literature on this problem is disappointingly replete with negative findings (e.g., Rechtschaffen, 1958), some recent reports (Smith & Raygor, 1956; Das, 1964) and some findings in our own laboratory to be mentioned presently may force us to re-examine this relationship with perhaps a more positive outcome.

According to my assumptions, this personality trait, which I have previously called semantic satiability (Jakobovits. 1962), is mediated by the individual's susceptibility to cortical fatigue and by the characteristic rate of oscillation in his attentive process. Thus, Warren's (1961a) finding that old people show greater stability of verbal transformations under auditory repetition, and some recent evidence of our own (Jakobovits, 1966c) showing that younger children are less susceptible to semantic satiation than older children, may point to a developmental ontogenesis of the attentive oscillation pattern such that the very young and the very old have less stable patterns than individuals of intermediate ages. Both age and intelligence are likely correlates of the attentive oscillation rate. The various demonstrations previously reported of the effects of semantic satiation in cognitive processes such as problem solving, concept formation, retention, verbal learning, auditory perception, and so on (see DAs, 1964. Jakobovits, 1965a, b; Jakobovits & Lambert, 1962a, b; Warren, 1961b) which cannot be reviewed here, reinforce me in the belief that we are dealing here with a general and basic characteristic of cortical activity in higher mental processes.


It has been observed both in the classroom5 and in the experimental laboratory (Kounin, 1941; Spitz & Lipman, 1961) that mentally retarded children or culturally deprived children are, relative to other children, highly impervious to satiation effects. Resistance to satiation and great tolerance for repetitiousness seem to go together with cognitive rigidity, lower intelligence, or a culturally impoverished environment. Repetitive pattern drills, quite unsuitable with normal children who find them too boring, appear to be effective with retarded children. A simple addition task such as "three plus one equals four" may require literally dozens of verbal repetitions for successful acquisition5 by a retarded child, whereas we might expect that this amount of repetition would in fact lead to semantic satiation effects inhibiting solution to the task, as has been demonstrated for college students by Jakobovits and Lambert (1962a).

While it is reasonable to assume that low satiability in the mentally retarded is mediated by low cortical excitability, a different explanation would seem to be required for the culturally disadvantaged. A possibility that merits investigation is that the disadvantaged child is so unfamiliar with the concepts to be acquired in school that vast amounts of exposure are required before the critical point" is reached on the upswing of the generation phase on the frequency curve discussed above. The middle-class child, on the other hand, already has "richness of meaning" for many concepts introduced in early grades and hence it is to be expected that his "critical point" will be reached much faster and that he will not tolerate repetition beyond that point without the inhibitory effects of semantic satiation.

But there is another possible effect that may be operating alongside the effect just noted. Tolerance for repetition--the obverse of the need for novelty--may represent, in addition to a native cortical excitability trait, a learned cognitive habit, There is some evidence that college students who exhibit an authoritarian pattern of answers on the California F-Scale (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, & Sanford, 1964) obtain significantly lower scores on a semantic satiability questionnaire6 than those who do not exhibit such a pattern. Since authoritarianism is assumed to be a learned trait, it would appear that semantic satiability can similarly be acquired. Therefore, the possibility ought not to be discounted that the low satiability exhibited by culturally disadvantaged children is a learned cognitive trait.

Further investigation is called for to examine the extent to which the desire for novelty, for stimulus variability, and intolerance of repetition can be taught as a remediary educative process. The relationship between repetition and learning is not well understood. The time-honored maxim that practice makes perfect is an over-simplification of the problem. Recent evidence (Jakobovits, 1966c) has shown that although it is generally true that repetition facilitates learning, important factors such as age, sex, and intelligence interact with amount of repetition in its effect on retention. In particular, younger children, children of lower intelligence, and girls profit more than other children from the effects of repetition, and under certain conditions of learning a given amount of repetition will be helpful for some students but unhelpful and inhibitory for others. More evidence of this type is needed for a thorough understanding of the problem.


In principle, semantic satiation as an applied tool ought to work wherever a specifiable cognitive activity mediates some behavior that one wishes to alter. If, for instance, as may be the case with some stutterers (see Jakobovits, 1966b), the speech disorder is mediated by negative evaluational reactions to specific words or to the speech situation, then the behavior can theoretically be changed by satiating the evaluational reactions that mediate it. Similarly, if one could first identify, then satiate, the affective responses that mediate discriminatory behavior, one ought to be able to change such behavior more easily than otherwise.

The notion that behavior can be changed by reorienting cognitive activity is not, of course, new--as psychotherapists. educators, and propagandists well know, What is; new is the suggestion that the cognitive re-orientation can be achieved by repeated and continued elicitation of the individual's habitual mode of thinking. The advantage of this approach lies in the obvious fact that it is easier to elicit an individual's habitual response than it is to suppress it. Wolpe (1958, 1962) has described a method of treating phobias that has come to be known as systematic desensitization. With this method the patient is repeatedly exposed to a verbal description of the feared situation and simultaneously required to engage in relaxation exercises 'hat inhibit anxiety responses The therapeutic effect of this procedure lies in the transfer of the cognitively satiated fear situation to the real life setting.

Another interesting application of a forced repetition technique which was recently reported7 proved successful in the treatment of a rare malady called the Gilles de la Tourette syndrome, which is characterized by compulsive and uncontrollable cursing. The treatment consisted of forcing the patient to repeat his favorite obscenities as fast as possible until exhausted, in an effort to build up an inhibitory refractory phase. If the patient flagged from cursing at a rate of more than twice per second, he was given a mild electric shock.

Faced with the problem of eliminating an unwanted habit in the child, the educator may have greater success by satiating it than by attempting to suppress it through punishment.


Since much of the evidence on semantic satiation comes from studies on the effects of repetition of words. It is useful also to examine other issues.

Amster's (1964) interpretation of semantic satiation in terms of adaptation level theory points to the possibility of a shift in the customary meaning of a word due to repetition. Osgood (Osgood, Suci. & Tannenbaum. 1957) has previously referred to the problem of denotative contamination in the use of semantic differential scales such that certain bi-polar adjectives may shift their meaning when used with certain concepts. For example, the meaning of ''hard-soft" when used with such concepts as character, music, or pride is not the same as when used with such concepts as diamond, peach, or blueberry pie. In this case what happens is a shift from a metaphorical to a denotative use of the scalar opposites. It has been suggested8 that an analogous shift in concept meaning can occur during verbal repetition, In an extreme case such shifts could bring about a situation in which the word being rated after repetition is no longer the same )rd that was rated before repetition. More probably, however, different affective and denotative features of the word become salient. Changes in the customary word association responses under conditions of verbal repetition have been noted by some investigators (Smith & Raygor, 1956; Fillenbaum, 1963) and these findings can be construed as evidence for such concept meaning shift.

In the case of semantic differential ratings, such shifts in concept meaning may result in a reorientation of both the meaning of scalar adjectives and their relevance to the concept Jakobovits and Rice (1967) have demonstrated that with the repetition of high relevant words the number of relevant meaning dimensions decreases, whereas with the repetition of low relevant words there is an increase in the number of meaning dimensions that become relevant.

It is interesting to speculate on the effect of the concept scale interaction upon the semantic differential profile. There is reason to believe that under ordinary conditions of semantic differential ratings, the profile will reflect the componential resultant of the various fractionary meanings of the concept that is being rated. It is also likely that the fractionary meanings are differentially loaded in a habit hierarchy so that one meaning is ordinarily dominant. With verbal repetition a shift, in the customary habit hierarchy may occur such that different fractionary meanings become dominant. The profile Should reflect this change by moving away from the pre-repetition point.

One possible explanation for this kind of shift is that repetition reduces the dominant affective component of a symbol and raises the importance of antagonistic components --a situation which would result in neutralization of the resultant factor score. Another possibility is that the components that become dominant are affectively more pronounced (in the same direction) --a situation which would result in polarization of the resultant factor score. Finally, it may be that irrelevant and mutually antagonistic affective components become dominant as a result of verbal repetition --once again resulting in neutralization of the profile.

It is apparent that the picture of semantic satiation and generation drawn here is considerably more complex than Our original one (Lambert & Jakobovits, 1960). In a previous report (Jakobovits & Lambert, 1,964) it was pointed out that the direction and strength of semantic change under repeated presentation of a stimulus may be a function of the total number of representational mediation processes that can potentially be elicited during inspection or repetition of the stimulus. It was argued that, if this number is large, the strength and number of mediation processes which are elicited will increase, promoting semantic generation; whereas if the number is relatively small, repeated elicitation will lead to a decrease in strength because of the accumulation of neural reactive inhibition, promoting semantic satiation.

It is thus apparent that both the concepts and the scales used would affect the type of semantic changes that would occur under conditions of verbal repetition. It is not impossible that a judicious choice of concept -scale combination can yield either generation or satiation as Yelen and Schulz (1963) have suggested, although not, I think, adequately demonstrated. The real problem is to specify the conditions under which satiation and generation will occur --and to explain why in a theoretically consistent fashion.

There is yet another aspect of semantic satiation that needs further clarification. This is the problem of the specificity of the cognitive process that is said to be satiated. When some findings (Jakobovits, 1966a) on the changes in the popularity of songs were interpreted in terms of the concept of semantic satiation, one critic objected that this was a gratuitous extension of the concept. This question is particularly relevant in some recent work investigating the effects of repetition in tape-recorded messages (Jakobovits, 1965b), educational films (Jakobovits. 1966c), and television programming (Jakobovits, 1967).

I think the answer to this criticism lies in the property of higher mental processes to organize themselves into converging and diverging systems of habit-family hierarchies representing units of increasing abstraction. After all, precise analysis of the meaning of a word immediately reveals that we must be concerned with a whole set of individual responses organized into a habit-family (Goss, 1961). The meaning response which we represent as"rm," (Osgood. Suci, & Tannenbaum, 1957) is obviously a Compound resultant of a series of more specific responses that theoretically correspond to individual scales of the semantic differential. Similarly, one can conceive of a unitary response to a popular song without contradicting the notion that it is composed of individual responses of a more fractional nature. The belief that the whole is more than the sum of its parts affects the present argument only insofar as one attempts to make statements about the generalization of satiation from the more abstract unitary response to the more fractional part responses of which it is made up and vice versa.

For example, when a sentence loses meaning because it has been repeated too often, such as might be the case with clichés, to what extent are the phrases and words making up the cliché also satiated? The obvious resistance to satiation of grammatical rules repeatedly used in speech points to the existence of protective cortical mechanisms that function to inhibit satiation effects under conditions of excessive repetition. This mechanism may involve direct inhibitory cells of the type suggested in another context by Milner (1957), or it may involve a system of alternating reverberating phase sequences of the type postulated by Hebb (1949), again in another context. Think of the annoying persistence with which a particular tune, after constant repetition, intrudes itself into one's thought processes and resists any attempt to suppress it. This kind of failure of satiation where it ought to occur stands in sharp contrast to other everyday circumstances where its effects are quite predictable. How many people are able to draw even a reasonably accurate representation of the face of their wristwatch after having looked at it thousands of times?

But there is still a further possibility which suggests itself by the observation that certain forms of behavior can endlessly be repeated without any reduction in their intensity. In normal behavior this type of repetition is associated with automated behavior in which the representational process seems to have been short-circuited --as in automatic reading. Where this form of repetition shows itself in higher mental processes, it is associated with abnormal behavior as in echololalia and certain obsessive-compulsive thought patterns notable in some mental disorders. What I am suggesting, then, is that the application and use of grammatical rules in normal adult speech may have reached an automated level that by-passes the representational system and may be dependent upon a type of lower level cortical activity that is resistant to satiation effects.


What I have attempted to do in this paper was to allocate a fundamental role to the operations of semantic satiation and semantic generation in cognitive activity viewed within a Hullian behavior system. The significance that I attach to this attempt lies not so much in its truth value --after all most theories have a life span that is very short or moderately long, but seldom very long --as in its consistency of approach to a wide range of human behavior. I think it is possible to give a number of plausible alternatives to the interpretation of a decrease in the polarity of rating on the semantic differential scale, but I challenge these theories to give a consistent account of the range of facts which this theory of semantic satiation and generation has incorporated.


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1 The writing of this paper was made possible in part, by NSF Grant #GS 953 to the author. An earlier version of the paper was presented at a symposium during the 1966 annual convention or the American Psychological Association in New York

2 Semantic satiation implies the notion of a reduction in the intensity of meaning of a stimulus when it is repeatedly exposed to the subject.

3 Semantic generation refers to the increase in the intensity of meaning of a stimulus when it is repeatedly exposed to the subject.

4 The semantic differential consists of a set of bipolar rating scales having seven points along which individuals can judge various stimuli such as words, colors, people, events. It has been found that a small number of scales --about 12 -- can index a substantial part of the connotative or affective reactions of individuals to words in their language as well as to their environment. By means of this measuring device once can assess and compare the psychological meaning of words in an objective quantitative fashion by assigning mathematical values to each of the seven points of the semantic differential scale. Algebraic manipulation of these values can specify the exact locus of a word in an imaginary multidimensional "semantic space." The instrument has been influential in the psychology of language and the recent development of psycholinguistics. Theoretically, from their standpoints, the semantic differential scales index the "meaning response" which is believed to mediate such psychological processes as feelings, attitudes, perceptions, and motivations as these are represented symbolically in cognition, thinking, and language. The meaning response can be considered as a stimulus-response event in the brain with the same properties as are identified with overt responses by learning theorists, i.e., conditioning, generalization, and extinction.

5 Personal communication from Mrs. Valerie Anderson, Institute for Exceptional Children, University of Illinois.

6 Semantic Satiability Questionnaire devised by the author and is yet unpublished.

7 Newsletter of the Institute for Rational Living 45 East 65th St., New York, N.Y., September 1966.

8 Personal Communication from Professor Murray S. Miron, Department of Psychology, Syracuse University.

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Effects of Mere Exposure: A Comment
Rhetoric and Stylistics: Some Basic Issues in the Analysis of Discourse
Semantic Satiation and Cognitive Dynamics
Semantic Satiation as a Function of Initial Polarity and Scale Relevance
Some Potential Uses of the Cross-cultural Atlas of Affective Meanings


An Evaluation of People's Attitudes Toward Technostress and Techniques on How to Overcome it.
To Fear or not to Fear the Computer

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