Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Verbalizing Events: Overshadowing or Facilitation?

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Verbalizing Events: Overshadowing or Facilitation?

Article excerpt

Verbal overshadowing refers to the surprising effect whereby additional verbal information about a visual stimulus hinders its subsequent recognition. In two experiments, we analyzed the validity of this effect for event recognition across various conditions of presentation and testing. Participants observed events that were either followed (Experiment 1) or preceded (Experiment 2) by a verbal description. Results showed that verbal overshadowing occurred when the verbal description was presented after the visual presentation, independent of the distractor type. However, when the verbal description preceded the event, recognition performance was seen to improve when distractor items incompatible with the verbal description were used. The findings were interpreted in terms of two interacting mental representations, which differ both in their level of abstraction and in their accessibility.

The question whether verbal descriptions of a visual stimulus foster or hinder its subsequent recognition has received much attention in cognitive psychology (e.g., Loftus, Miller, & Burns, 1978). During the last two decades, research has mainly focused on verbal overshadowingthat is, a decrease in recognition performance due to verbalization. Recently, the complementary possibility of an increase in recognition performance (verbal facilitation) by varying the experimental design came into the focus of research (e.g., Brown & Lloyd-Jones, 2005,2006; Itoh, 2005). Hence, the present article aims to extend previous research on verbalization effects on recognition performance in two ways, namely by developing a unified account which includes both verbal overshadowing and its counterpart, verbal facilitation, and by investigating these effects for events instead of for static items (e.g., faces or objects) as constituting another important class of environmental stimuli.

Inspired by practical considerations of eyewitness testimony, Schooler and Engstler-Schooler (1990) introduced the verbal overshadowing paradigm, which demonstrates verbal influences on the recognition of visual stimuli. In this paradigm, participants are first presented with a visual stimulus (e.g., a face) which they are then required to verbally describe. Typically, hi a subsequent recognition test, recognition accuracy of these participants is lower than that of viewers who were not required to offer verbal descriptions of the visual stimulus (Brown & Lloyd-Jones, 2002,2003; Meissner & Brigham, 2001; Schooler, 2002). A similar verbal overshadowing effect has also been found when participants are presented with a verbal description (passive verbalization) rather than having to formulate a description for themselves (active verbalization; Dodson, Johnson, & Schooler, 1997) after observing a visual stimulus. In their meta-analysis, Meissner and Brigham analyzed 29 studies of the verbal overshadowing phenomenon and found a small negative effect of verbalization processes on recognition performance (Fisher's Z^sub e^ = -0.12). However, several studies failed to replicate the verbal overshadowing effect (e.g., Meissner, Brigham, & Kelley, 2001), indicating the fragile nature of the verbal overshadowing effect.

Two different theoretical accounts of the verbal overshadowing phenomenon have been proposed. The first of these relates to a transfer-inappropriate processing shift, and the second to receding interference or source confusion between two concurring mental representations.

According to the processing shift hypothesis, subsequent verbalization of visual stimuli forces participants to focus on visual details of the stimulus, resulting in a feature-based cognitive style. At least in the case of face recognition, this feature-based style proves suboptimal, compared with the holistic processing style spontaneously applied when observing faces. Verbalization therefore induces an inappropriate processing shift, which in turn leads to decreased recognition accuracy in a subsequent recognition test. …

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