How do humans perform difficult forced-choice evaluations, e.g., of words that have been previously rated as being neutral? Here we tested the hypothesis that in this case, the valence of semantic associates is of significant influence. From corpus based co-occurrence statistics as a measure of association strength we computed individual neighborhoods for single neutral words comprised of the 10 words with the largest association strength. We then selected neutral words according to the valence of the associated words included in the neighborhoods, which were either mostly positive, mostly negative, mostly neutral or mixed positive and negative, and tested them using a valence decision task (VDT). The data showed that the valence of semantic neighbors can predict valence judgments to neutral words. However, all but the positive neighborhood items revealed a high tendency to elicit negative responses. For the positive and negative neighborhood categories responses congruent with the neighborhood's valence were faster than incongruent responses. We interpret this effect as a semantic network process that supports the evaluation of neutral words by assessing the valence of the associative semantic neighborhood. In this perspective, valence is considered a semantic super-feature, at least partially represented in associative activation patterns of semantic networks.
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