Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Looking for Meaning: Eye Movements Are Sensitive to Overlapping Semantic Features, Not Association

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Looking for Meaning: Eye Movements Are Sensitive to Overlapping Semantic Features, Not Association

Article excerpt

Theories of semantic memory differ in the extent to which relationships among concepts are captured via associative or via semantic relatedness. We examined the contributions of these two factors, using a visual world paradigm in which participants selected the named object from a four-picture display. We controlled for semantic relatedness while manipulating associative strength by using the visual world paradigm's analogue to presenting asymmetrically associated pairs in either their forward or backward associative direction (e.g., ham-eggs vs. eggs-ham). Semantically related objects were preferentially fixated regardless of the direction of presentation (and the effect size was unchanged by presentation direction). However, when pairs were associated but not semantically related (e.g., iceberg-lettuce), associated objects were not preferentially fixated in either direction. These findings lend support to theories in which semantic memory is organized according to semantic relatedness (e.g., distributed models) and suggest that association by itself has little effect on this organization.

Models of semantic memory differ in how relationships among concepts are captured. Associative relations play an important role in spreading activation models (e.g., Anderson, 1983; Collins & Loftus, 1975), whereas in distributed models, semantic feature overlap is critical (e.g., Masson, 1995). However, both types of model assume that when a concept is activated, related concepts also become partially active. The paradigm most commonly applied to testing these models is semantic priming. Two recent reviews of this literature (Hutchison, 2003; Lucas, 2000) concluded that automatic semantic priming does not require association. Although this conclusion is consistent with distributed models, both reviews also showed some role for association, suggesting that it too plays a role in the organization of semantic memory.

Using semantic priming to test associative versus semantic relations can be problematic, however. Because the prime and target are typically paired, participants may notice relationships and engage in strategies to perform the task (Neely, Keefe, & Ross, 1989), limiting the conclusions that can be drawn about the organization of semantic memory. It is therefore necessary to take great methodological care to ensure that semantic priming is not due to controlled processing-especially when testing associative relations, since they tend to be more obvious during semantic priming.

Evaluating the role of association is further complicated by the fact that most associated concepts are also semantically related. In the priming literature, the strength of association between a pair of concepts describes the probability that one will call the other to mind, and although this variable reflects a variety of relationships (e.g., antonyms, synonyms, words that co-occur in language, category coordinates, etc.), most of these are semantic. Furthermore, concepts that are strongly semantically related are usually strongly associatively related as well, making it difficult to test either associative or semantic relatedness in isolation. One way to circumvent this problem is to take advantage of a key difference between associative and semantic relationships: As typically defined, association can be asymmetrical, but semantic relations cannot. For example, ham and eggs are asymmetrically associated because, although the cue ham frequently elicits the response eggs, the cue eggs does not often elicit ham. At the same time, because ham and eggs share the same number of semantic features regardless of which concept is first activated, their semantic relationship is symmetrical.

In an exploration of the effects of semantic and associative relatedness on automatic semantic priming, Thompson-Schill, Kurtz, and Gabrieli (1998; henceforth TKG) exploited the asymmetry of association strength. They used asymmetrically associated pairs that were either semantically related (e. …

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