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How the human mind makes use of opposites in everyday life

Contraries are pervasive in our perceptual experience of the world, our reasoning processes and our language. What lies behind this fact? Are we dealing here with a really basic cognitive structure? In many fields of the Cognitive Sciences, research makes references to opposites. Consider, for instance, the amount of space devoted to the study of antonyms in the following areas: linguistics and cognitive semantics (Croft & Cruse, 2004; Jones, 2002; Paradis, 2015); the matrix of opposite traits presupposed by many theories of personality and by their corresponding diagnostic tools (Cattel, 1945; Eysenk, 1985; Kelly, 1955; McCrae e Costa, 1985, 1992); the models of brain dynamics (Kelso & Engstrom, 2006), body motion (Laban, 1985) and emotions in terms of bipolar dimensions (Schimmack, 2001; Scherer, 2003). Despite the assumption that any variability between objects, individuals, emotions and so on needs to be modelled in terms of opposite characteristics (e.g. near-far, high-low, inside-outside, light-dark and pleasant-unpleasant), there are very few studies which have systematically investigated the cognitive structure of opposition. Furthermore, there are no theories which provide either a unifying view or a proven methodology, something which would help us to understand the cognitive foundations of the various structures relating to opposition. In the last twenty years, we have been working on a systematic analysis in order to assess the possibility of establishing a new cognitive theory of opposites grounded in perception. This has involved using both phenomenal and quantitative methods such as those used in the EPhP and Phenomenological Psychophysics (for an overview see Bianchi & Savardi, 2008, 2002; Savardi, 2009). Various studies have been done investigating the conditions associated with the perception of opposition between visual and acoustic configurations, and on whether it is possible to extend these results to an analysis of opposition in language and the various reasoning processes dealing with contrasts (e.g. representational change in insight problem solving, negation, irony and understanding humor).

a) The spatial foundation of the perception of OPPOSITION

The human perceptual experience of opposition is intertwined with the perception of space. Evidence of this has been found both when people’s experience of complex ecological environments is examined, and in investigations into the minimal experience of space (i.e. an observer faced with a homogeneous visual field, known as the Ganzfeld after Metzger, 1930). It has also emerged in studies on the structure of the human body and the perceptual organization of three basic spatial frameworks: egocentric space, allocentric space and relational space.

  1. Bianchi, I. & Savardi U. (2018). Spatial Contraries and Mirrors. In: T. Hubbard (ed.), Spatial Biases in Perception and Cognition (pp. 209 – 221). Cambridge University Press.
  2. Bianchi, I., Bertamini, M. (2013). Anisotropy and polarization of space: Evidence from naïve optics and phenomenological psychophysics. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36 (5), 545-546.
  3. Savardi, U., Bianchi I. (2009). The spatial path to contrariety. In U. Savardi (ed). The perception and cognition of contraries (pp. 63-92). Milano: Mc-Graw Hill.
  4. Bianchi I., & Savardi, U. (2012). The cognitive dimensions of contrariety. In: J-Y. Bezieau & G. Payette (Eds) The Square of Opposition. A general framework for cognition (pp. 443-470). New York: Peter Lang Publishing Group. ISBN 978-3-0343-0537-2
  5. Bianchi, I., & Savardi, U. (2008). The perception of Contraries. Roma: Aracne.

b) An experimental phenomenological approach to the analysis of the perceptual dimensions identified by opposite properties (e.g. high-low, open-closed, top-bottom)

Analyses of antonyms were initially carried out in the field of Linguistics, and they were mainly done from a speculative, lexical point of view. In the last 20 years, scholars of Cognitive Linguistics have initiated a theoretical shift towards an interpretation of antonymy as a relationship between construals of meanings in discourse. As a consequence, there has also been a shift in the methodologies used to study opposition (e.g. in areas such as co-occurrences in linguistic corpora and experiments using elicitation or judgment/rating tasks, response times as well as eye tracking methodologies etc). The approach we are interested in represents a further shift in perspective, this time with the aim of investigating the perceptual structure of opposite properties based on phenomenological psychophysics. The focus is on two specific aspects.

I) An analysis of the perceptual structure of dimensions in terms of three components: the two opposite poles (e.g. in the dimension NEAR-FAR, what naïve subjects perceive as near and what they perceive as far) and a third intermediate component (e.g. that which naïve subjects perceive as neither near nor far)
Intermediates have often been neglected in previous linguistic-based approaches to the study of opposites and dimensions, maybe because they are rarely lexicalized. However, from a perceptual point of view this third component is very important since properties (one or many) perceived as ‘neither one pole nor the other’ are common in human experiences relating to most sensory dimensions. Innovative metric and topological tasks have been devised by our research group to analyze the structure of these three components (poles and intermediates) in addition to more traditional methodologies (i.e. rating tasks, classification tasks and eye tracking measurements). This has meant that it is now possible to identify various typologies of oppositional dimensions.

  1. Bianchi, I., Paradis, C., Burro, R., van de Weijer, J., Nyström, M., & Savardi, U. (2017). Identification of opposites and intermediates by eye and by hand. Acta Psychologica, 180, 175–189.
  2. Bianchi, I., Burro, R., Torquati, S., & Savardi, U. (2013). The middle of the road: perceiving intermediates. Acta Psychologica, 144 (1), 121-135.
  3. Bianchi, I., Savardi, U., & Kubovy, M. (2011). Dimensions and their poles: A metric and topological theory of opposites. Language and Cognitive Processes, 26 (8), 1232-1265.
  4. Bianchi, I., Savardi, U., & Tacchella, P. (2002). Fuzzy Logic: un’applicazione nella fenomenologia sperimentale della contrarietà. [Fuzzy Logic: how it applies to the experimental phenomenology of perception] In: U. Savardi & I. Bianchi (eds). Le Relazioni Empiriche. Per una Scienza delle Relazioni in Psicologia, (pp. 197-232). [Empirical Relationships. For a Science of Relationships in Psychology ]. Milano: FrancoAngeli.

II) The unidimensionality of opposite spatial properties
An investigation of the perceptual structure of opposites also means that you cannot take it for granted that the three components of a dimension (the two poles and the intermediate region) necessarily lie on the same continuum. Are the perceptual ratings relating to one property (e.g. the extent to which X is angular) or its opposite (e.g. the extent to which X is rounded) simply inverses of each other? This issue relates to the behavior of reverse-worded items in psychometric tests. We have explored the perceptual foundation of the problem, with regard to a set of spatial properties.

  1. Bianchi, I., Savardi, U., & Burro, R. (2011). Perceptual ratings of opposite spatial properties: Do they lie on the same dimension? Acta Psychologica, 138 (3), 405-418.
  2. Savardi, U., Bianchi, I., & Burro, R. (2009). From opposites to dimensions: filling in the gaps. In U. Savardi (ed). The perception and cognition of contraries (pp. 275-294). Milano: Mc-Graw Hill.
  3. Burro, R., Savardi, U. & Bianchi, I. (2008). Are Opposites Unidimensional?, Gestalt Theory, 2, 191-195.
  4. Burro, R. (2009). Measuring in experimental phenomenology and carrying out phenomenological psychophysics: the case of contrary properties. In U. Savardi (ed). The perception and cognition of contraries (pp. 249-274). Milano: Mc-Graw Hill.

c) The perception of opposition in mirror images

Mirrors are often used by people in everyday life to check, for instance, how their face or hair looks, how a shirt fits, or to check traffic while driving or ascertain whether a sport or physical activity is being practised in the right way. All these behaviors reveal that we accept mirror images as manifesting “sameness” in relation to the real counterpart. Looking at themselves in a mirror saturates a person’s experience of their own visual “identity”. However, an inescapable characteristic of reflections in plane mirrors (i.e. mirrors that do not cause evident deformations) is that they are opposite. If the mirror is in front of me and I am facing North, my reflection necessarily faces South (i.e. opposite in terms of the sagittal axis) and if the mirror is positioned horizontally under my feet and I am standing on it, my reflection will be upside down (i.e. opposite in terms of the gravitational axis). In any case, if I wear my watch on my left wrist, I will see myself wearing it on my right wrist in the reflection…
By means of experiments involving a variety of perceptual tasks, we investigated adults’ awareness of the opposition that is embedded in their experience of looking at themselves in plane mirrors. We have also explored the ways in which this element of opposition influences the errors made by adults when asked to predict the behavior of reflections. Furthermore, we have shown how this element of opposition is sometimes magnified in artworks that exhibit a clear violation of the expected correspondence between the world on one side of the mirror and the world on the other side.

  1. Bianchi, I., Bertamini, M., & Savardi, U. (2015). Differences between predictions of how a reflection behaves based on the behaviour of an object, Acta Psychologica, 161, 54-63.
  2. Bianchi, I., & Savardi, U. (2014). Grounding naive physics and optics in perception. The Baltic International Yearbook for Cognition Logic and Communication, vol. 6 (Perception and Concepts), 1- 15.
  3. Savardi, U, & Bianchi I. (2014). Contraries in art: a glance at the structure of mirror reflections. Gestalt Theory, 36 (3), 209-226. (ISSN 0170-057 X)
  4. Bianchi, I., & Savardi, U. (2012). What fits in into a mirror: naïve beliefs on the field of view of mirrors. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 38 (5), 1144-1158.
  5. Savardi, U., Bianchi, I., Bertamini, M. (2010). Naive prediction of orientation and motion in mirrors. From what we see to what we expect reflections to do. Acta Psychologica, 134 (1), 1-15.
  6. Bianchi, I. & Savardi U. (2009). Contrariety in plane mirror reflections. In U. Savardi (ed). The perception and cognition of contraries (pp. 113-128). Milano: Mc-Graw Hill.
  7. Bianchi, I., & Savardi, U. (2008). The relationship perceived between the real body and the mirror image. Perception, 5, 666-687.
  8. Savardi, U., & Bianchi, I. (2005). Looking at yourself in the Mirror: structures of Perceptual Opposition. Gestalt Theory, 3, 204-220.
  9. Bianchi, I., & Savardi, U. (2005). L’esperienza di identità-contrarietà con la propria immagine allo specchio. In: U. Savardi, & I. Bianchi (eds). L’identità empirica. Studi e ricerche sull’esperienza di identità (pp. 185-206). Milano: FrancoAngeli.

d) The perception of contrariety in postures and gestures in humans.

Imitation has been extensively studied in Psychology, but what about opposite postures and gestures? Are people consistent in their interpretions of what constitutes the opposite posture or gesture? Is it more time consuming than copying what the other person is doing? Bodies are visual configurations with a clear spatial structure: when people are asked to do the opposite of what another person is doing (i.e. a production task), do they preferentially focus on egocentric, allocentric and relational spaces? And when they look at two people performing gestures and try to understand whether they are doing the same or the opposite, which of these frames of reference do they base their judgment on? And are their responses to the two latter questions independent of the type of gesture being performed?

  1. Bianchi, I., & Savardi, U., Burro, R., & Martelli, M.F. (2014). Doing the opposite to what another person is doing. Acta Psychologica. 151, 117-133.
  2. Savardi, U., & Bianchi, I. (2001). La percezione della forma dei gesti identici e contrari. [The perceived form of identical and opposite gestures], DiPAV Quaderni, FrancoAngeli, 1, 135-168.

e) The perception of contrariety in shapes and figures and symmetrical (visual and acoustic) patterns

Same-different tasks have a long tradition in Cognitive Psychology and are still being widely applied even today. They presuppose that people hold an intuitive idea of what “same” and “different” mean. Likewise, similarity has been shown to be a basic relationship in people’s perceptual organization and in various cognitive tasks (from categorization to analogical reasoning). But what about opposition? What are the characteristics that make us recognize two configurations as being not similar and not different but opposite? When we say “These two configurations are opposites”, we are not saying that they are “similar”or “different”, we are stating that their relationship represents opposition.
The results of various studies (involving both production and recognition tasks) have shown that configurations which are spontaneously associated with the idea of opposition mostly manifest invariance with regard to many of their features but that there is an evident contrast in relation to one or two characteristics, generally spatial and, in most cases, relating to orientation. Symmetrical configurations often possess these requisites, and in fact we have discovered that even though symmetry is usually thought of in terms of a pattern relating to identity, opposition is a fundamental component that naïve subjects perceptually recognize or think of as being highly representative of their idea of “symmetry”.
We have also explored what people think are the characteristics that make two processes (depicted in images or written descriptions) opposite to each other.

  1. Bianchi, I., & Burro, R. (in preparation). Perceiving opposition, in relation to perceiving similarity and difference.
  2. Bianchi, I., Capitani, E., Branchini, E., Savardi, U. & Burro, R. (2021) Naïve intuitions about what constitutes “an opposite process”, Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 33, DOI: 10.1080/20445911.2021.1988619.
  3. Capitani, E., Branchini, E., Burro, R., Savardi, U., & Bianchi, I. (2020). The opposite of a transformation process. An exploration based on diagrams, Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 32:7, 698-714.
  4. Bianchi, I., Bertamini, M., Burro, R. & Savardi, U. (2017). Opposition and identicalness: two basic components of adults’ perception and mental representation of Symmetry. Symmetry 9(8), 128.
  5. Bianchi, I., Burro, R., Pezzola, R., & Savardi, U. (2017). Matching Visual and Acoustic Mirror Forms. Symmetry, 9, 39-60.
  6. Bracco, F., Bianchi, I., Chiorri, C., Burro, R., & Savardi, U. (2009). Investigating contraries by means of change detection. In U. Savardi (ed). The perception and cognition of contraries (pp. 93-112). Milano: Mc-Graw Hill.
  7. Bianchi, I. & Savardi, U. (2006). Oppositeness in visually perceived forms. Gestalt Theory, 4, 354-374.

f) How understanding the phenomenological structure of opposites sheds light on certain linguistic phenomena which lie on contrasting/oppositional dimensions

I) Descriptive negation
What images come to mind when someone describes something that we cannot see using a negative? (e.g. “The queue at the ticket office is not long”, “The shutters are not closed” “The path does not go uphill”). Of course, the intonation of the speaker’s voice is critical, but let’s assume a neutral intonation and a simple description. The particle not certainly shifts the cursor on the dimension away from the negated property (i.e. in the examples, long, closed and uphill, respectively) and moves it towards the opposite pole. But how far towards the opposite pole? Does it remain between the intermediate point and the same pole, or does it reach the intermediate region or end up shifting towards the opposite pole? Our research into spatial dimensions has provided some answers regarding these questions and it has been found that it is usually possible to make a prediction based on the phenomenological structure of the dimension in question. Namely, the perceptual nature of the three components (the two poles and the intermediate region) in terms of whether they cover a range or apply to a single point is crucial.

  1. Bianchi, I., Savardi, U., Burro, R., & Torquati, S. (2011). Negation and psychological dimensions. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 23(3), 275-301.

II) Humor and irony
Various cognitive theories regarding humor emphasize the importance of contrast and incongruity. In the case of irony, the role of opposition is evident (e.g. a person is given a tiny slice of cake and says that it is too much for one person). We have analyzed whether what we know about how opposites work from a point of view of perception (both in terms of the conditions which make opposition more evident and the phenomenological structure of oppositional dimensions) might help us to understand humor and predict the degree to which it will be amusing.

  1. Canestrari, C., & Bianchi, I. (2018). Perceptual opposites and contrast modulation in irony. Review of Cognitive Linguistics (special issue: Issues in humour cognition), 16, 48-71.
  2. Canestrari, C., Bianchi, I., & Cori, V. (2018). De-polarizing verbal Irony. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 30 (1), 43-62.
  3. Canestrari, C., Branchini, E., Bianchi, I., Savardi, U., & Burro, R. (2018) Pleasures of the Mind: What Makes Jokes and Insight Problems Enjoyable. Frontiers in Psychology, 8:2297.
  4. Bianchi, I., Canestrari, C., Roncoroni, A.M., Burro, R., Branchini, E., & Savardi, U. (2017). The effects of modulating contrast in verbal irony as a cue for giftedness. Humor – International Journal of Humor Research, 30(4), 383-415.
  5. Canestrari, C., & Bianchi, I. (2013). From perception of contraries to humorous incongruities. In M. Dynel (ed.) Developments in Linguistic Humour Theory (pp.3-24). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing Company.Canestrari, C., & Bianchi, I. (2012). Perception of contrariety in jokes. Discourse Processes, 49 (7), 539-564.
  6. Canestrari, C., & Bianchi I. (2009). The perception of humor: from script opposition to the phenomenological rules of contrariety. In U. Savardi (ed). The perception and cognition of contraries (pp. 113-128). Milano: Mc-Graw Hill.

g) The role of opposites in insight problem-solving

People use opposites in various kinds of reasoning processes, from counterfactual thinking to falsification in inductive reasoning tasks. We have explored whether the participants in insight problem solving tasks are facilitated if they are told to manipulate the features of the problem by transforming them into their opposites, thereby creating a representational change that helps them to overcome their initial impasse. This strategy was tested with visuo-spatial insight problems, with both individuals and small groups, and with it being presented as a systematic training program (and therefore at a more explicit level of conscious processing) or as an indirect hint. The results of this experiment indicated that “thinking in opposites” did indeed facilitate the participants, in particular when they were in small groups.

  1. Branchini, E., Capitani, E., Burro, R., Savardi, U., & Bianchi, I. (2021). Opposites in reasoning processes: do we use them more than we think, but less than we could? Frontiers in Psychology – Cognitive Science, 12, 3696.
  2. Bianchi, I., Branchini, E., Burro, R., Capitani, E., & Savardi, U. (2020). Overtly prompting people to “think in opposites” supports insight problem solving. Thinking & Reasoning, 26 (1), 31-67.
  3. Branchini, E., Burro, R., Bianchi, I., & Savardi, U. (2015). Contraries as an effective strategy in geometrical problem solving, Thinking & Reasoning, 21 (4), 397-430.
  4. Branchini, E., Savardi, U., & Bianchi, I. (2015). Productive thinking: the role of perception and perceiving opposition. Gestalt Theory, 37 (1) 7-24.
  5. Branchini, E., Burro, R., & Savardi, U. (2009). Contraries in productive thinking. In: U. Savardi (2009) (ed). The perception and cognition of contraries (pp. 203-224). McGraw-Hill.