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Referential Activity (RA)

This page concerns the theoretical definition of Referential Activity, examples of high and low RA language, an overview of scoring methods and the use of RA measures in research. For additional information on RA scoring by judges, or by computer software using the Weighted Referential Activity Dictionary (WRAD) please see the pages below:

Definition of Referential Activity

Referential activity is a bidirectional linking process by which nonverbal experience, including imagery and emotional experience, is connected to words, in a speaker's expression and in listeners connecting back to their own inner experience.

Higher levels of RA go hand-in-hand with the description of experiences that are being deeply felt in the moment, including recent and past experiences. Often, when we are recalling a particularly powerful memory or dream, we experience ourselves as being back in that moment, of going through all the same feelings and sensations of the original event. The memory of getting a twisted ankle, for example, can cause a person to cringe and flex their foot. The physical pain (sensation) and fear (emotion) of being injured is brought up and experienced anew.

A speaker using language that is high in RA may describe the following:

I can't stand fruits with bad spots in it. It gives me the creeps. So I picked up that pineapple and it looked so nice, and then my finger went right through inside it, into this brown, slimy, mushy stuff, and my stomach just turned over. (Bucci, Kabasakalian-McKay & the RA Research Group, 1992, p. 47)

In this example, the speaker is describing an experience in such a way that it is easily brought up in imagination - the visual image of the fruit, the texture of the inside, even the physical repulsion felt by the speaker. There is a feeling of a solid, vivid connection to the memory.

Language that is low in RA lacks this detail and sense of immediacy, and tends to be more abstract and general. The following is an example:

I love people and I like to be with people. And right now I feel very bad because I can't be with them and do the things I would like to do. But I'm looking forward to a happier and healthier future and - I don't know what else to say. What else can I talk about? Well - I've had a very eventful life, I think. I've worked practically all my life and I love people. (Bucci, Kabasakalian-McKay & the RA Research Group, 1992, p. 54)

In this example, it is difficult to develop a firm grasp on what the speaker is saying. As listeners, we are unsure of what the speaker means by 'loving people,' why they are unable to be with people, and what they mean by 'healthier future' or 'eventful life.' There are many vague references and a feeling that the speaker is not connected to her feelings.

Using language that is high in RA enables a speaker to paint a clear mental picture for the listener, and allows the nonverbal tenor of the feelings underneath to be felt during the telling.

What is particularly useful about referential activity, however, is that it is a reliably measurable variable that has been extensively researched in a variety of contexts.  Below is an overview of how referential activity is scored, and research that has been done using this variable.  Links from the below lead to detailed descriptions within each of these areas.

Scoring Referential Activity

There are currently two methods of scoring RA.  The initial method  that has been used in the most studies to date is by training judges to score four basic aspects of the quality of language.  The original empirically derived computer model of this scoring was developed by Mergenthaler and Bucci (1999); this was modified and enhanced so as to include a dictionary with variable weights by Wilma Bucci and Bernard Maskit. The new computer model, based on over a thousand segments scored by judges, is called the Weighted Referential Activity Dictionary or WRAD for short.  The dictionary covers roughly 85% of the roughly 140,000 word language sample from which it was developed and correlates around .5 to .6 with the RA scoring of judges (Bucci & Maskit, 2006).    

Studies Utilizing Measures of Referential Activity

Over 100 studies have been conducted using measures of Referential Activity (please read the publications section for a complete list).  Recently studies have been conducted showing that measures of RA share substantial variance with measures of episodic memory (Bucci, Maskit & Murphy, 2009) and that populations with demonstrated episodic memory impairments, such as persons with Schizophrenia (Lewis, Murphy & Hanakawa, 2009) and Alzheimer's Dementia (Nelson & Polignano, 2009) are distinguishable from subjects without these disorders by these measures.  Please read the WRAD page for a summary of work validating the most recent version of referential activity measures.


Bucci, W., Kabasakalian, R. & the RA Research Group (1992). Instructions for scoring Referential Activity (RA) in transcripts of spoken narrative texts. Ulm, Germany; Ulmer Textbank.

Bucci, W. & Maskit, B. (2006). A weighted dictionary for Referential Activity. In J.G. Shanahan , Y. Qu, & J. Wiebe (Eds.) Computing Attitude and Affect in Text; Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer; pp. 49-60.

Bucci, W., Maskit, B. & Murphy, S. (2009, May). Measures of referential activity as indicators of episodic memory in different age groups and time contexts. Poster session at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention in San Francisco, CA.

Lewis, K., Murphy, S., Hanakawa, Y. (2009, May). Uncovering episodic memory through linguistic measures in schizophrenia. Poster session at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention in San Francisco, CA.

Mergenthaler, E. & Bucci, W. (1999). Linking verbal and nonverbal representations: Computer analysis of Referential Activity. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 72, 339-354.

Nelson, K. & Polignano, M. (2009, May). Referential activity in negative episodic 'flashbulb' memories from patients. Poster session at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention in San Francisco CA.