Modal Verbs and Mental Stirs: Studying short-term effects of modal verb production on cognition.

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Research into the possible effects of language on thought has focused predominantly on effects of language structure and language perception (i.e. hearing and reading). Few studies have addressed potential cognitive consequences of the words we speak, and those who did, often found effects that could be traced back to mechanisms separate from the language production process. In addition, tests of functional effects of language on the mind have typically employed content words, which are relatively concrete in comparison to function words and thus provide little opportunity to explore the challenges of representing abstract concepts that come with theories of embodied cognition. It would therefore be interesting to explore the effects of language production while using a more structural category of words: modal verbs. Participants in the present experiment generated sentences containing a Dutch modal verb that pertained either to intrinsic motivation (“willen” [to want to]), extrinsic motivation (“moeten” [to have to]) or neither (“zullen” [will]). After the sentence production task, they were asked to solve anagrams and rate their experience of the experiment. Producing different modal verbs did not appear to influence participants’ performance or persistence on the anagram task, nor did it result in differences in how they rated their intrinsic motivation and sense of autonomy in relation to the experimental tasks. A number of potential explanations for these findings are discussed, including the possibilities that the particular areas of language that have been investigated cannot affect cognition or that the experiment missed genuine effects due to large amounts of noise. It is suggested that more research be undertaken into the duration of functional language effects, into the extent to which abstract words can influence cognition and into effects of language production in general.
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