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The status of thematic roles such as Agent and Patient in cognitive science is highly controversial: To some they are universal components of core knowledge, to others they are scholarly fictions without psychological reality. We address this debate by posing two critical questions: to what extent do humans represent events in terms of abstract role categories, and to what extent are these categories shaped by universal cognitive biases? We review a range of literature that contributes answers to these questions: psycholinguistic and event cognition experiments with adults, children, and infants; typological studies grounded in cross-linguistic data; and studies of emerging sign languages. We pose these questions for a variety of roles and find that the answers depend on the role. For Agents and Patients, there is strong evidence for abstract role categories and a universal bias to distinguish the two roles. For Goals and Recipients, we find clear evidence for abstraction but mixed evidence as to whether there is a bias to encode Goals and Recipients as part of one or two distinct categories. Finally, we discuss the Instrumental role and do not find clear evidence for either abstraction or universal biases to structure instrumental categories.

Original publication




Journal article


Psychon Bull Rev

Publication Date





1850 - 1869


Cognitive development, Concepts and categories, Psycholinguistics, Semantics, Concept Formation, Humans, Psycholinguistics, Role