The language of intuition: a thematic integration model of intuitive coherence judgments

Tobias Maldei*, Nicola Baumann, Sander L. Koole

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


People can intuitively distinguish semantically coherent from incoherent word triads, even without knowing the common denominator. Drawing on cognitive linguistics, the present authors suggest that intuitive coherence judgments are driven by the thematic relations of the triad words. Words are thematically related when they perform different roles in the same scenario (e.g. CHICKEN and EGG are related via a production theme). Thematic relations differ from associations (CHICKEN and LITTLE are associated with a Disney movie) and taxonomic relations, which specify common attributes between concepts (CHICKEN and SPARROW are both birds). Consistent with the thematic integration model, word triads with thematic (rather than taxonomic) relations were more often judged as coherent (Study 1). Moreover, priming thematic (rather than taxonomic) processing led to more intuitive coherence judgments of word triads (Study 2). In three published datasets, thematic relations between triads’ word pairs predicted over half of the variance in intuitive coherence judgments (Study 3). Finally, when the existence of a common denominator and thematic relations were independently manipulated, thematic relations drove intuitive coherence judgments (Study 4). These findings demonstrate that intuition draws on people’s thematic knowledge about the world.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1183-1198
Number of pages16
JournalCognition and Emotion
Issue number6
Early online date3 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - 17 Aug 2020


  • intuition
  • Semantic coherence task
  • thematic relations


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