Reward is assessed in three dimensions that correspond to the semantic differential

John G Fennell, Roland J Baddeley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


If choices are to be made between alternatives like should I go for a walk or grab a coffee, a ‘common currency’ is needed to compare them. This quantity, often known as reward in psychology and utility in economics, is usually conceptualised as a single dimension. Here we propose that to make a comparison between different options it is important to know not only the average reward, but also both the risk and level of certainty (or control) associated with an option. Almost all objects can be the subject of choice, so if these dimensions are required in order to make a decision, they should be part of the meaning of those objects. We propose that this ubiquity is unique, so if we take an average over many concepts and domains these three dimensions (reward, risk, and uncertainty) should emerge as the three most important dimensions in the “meaning” of objects. We investigated this possibility by relating the three dimensions of reward to an old, robust and extensively studied factor analytic instrument known as the semantic differential. Across a very wide range of situations, concepts and cultures, factor analysis shows that 50% of the variance in rating scales is accounted for by just three dimensions, with these dimensions being Evaluation, Potency, and Activity [1]. Using a statistical analysis of internet blog entries and a betting experiment, we show that these three factors of the semantic differential are strongly correlated with the reward history associated with a given concept: Evaluation measures relative reward; Potency measures absolute risk; and Activity measures the uncertainty or lack of control associated with a concept. We argue that the 50% of meaning captured by the semantic differential is simply a summary of the reward history that allows decisions to be made between widely different options.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPLoS ONE
Publication statusPublished - 13 Feb 2013

Structured keywords

  • Brain and Behaviour
  • Cognitive Science
  • Visual Perception


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