Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Individual Differences and Emotional Inferences during Reading Comprehension

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Individual Differences and Emotional Inferences during Reading Comprehension

Article excerpt

This study investigated readers' representations of the main protagonist's emotional status in short narratives, as well as several mental factors that may affect these representations. General and visuospatial working memory, empathy, and simulation were investigated as potential individual differences in generating emotional inferences. Participants were confronted with narratives conveying information about the protagonist's emotional state. We manipulated each narrative's target sentence according to its content (emotional label vs. description of the behaviour associated to the emotion) and its congruence to the story (matching vs. mismatching). The results showed that globally the difference between reading times of congruent and incongruent target sentences was bigger in the behavioural than in the emotional condition. This pattern was accentuated for high visuospatial working memory participants when they were asked to simulate the stories. These results support the idea that mental models may be of a perceptual nature and may more likely include behavioural elements than emotion labels per se, as suggested earlier by Gygax et al. (2007).

Keywords: text comprehension, emotional inferences, self-paced reading paradigm, individual differences

Research on reading comprehension has shown that readers build mental models (Johnson-Laird, 1983) or situation models (Kintsch & van Dijk, 1978) of a scene depicted in a text that comprise both explicit and implicit elements. The latter are based on general knowledge and are referred to as inferences. Inferences generated during reading are often considered necessary to allow readers to maintain a certain local as well as global coherence of the text (Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994). Those establishing or maintaining local coherence connect adjacent constituents of the text, whereas those establishing or maintaining global coherence connect most constituents of the text by deeper features such as the theme of a narrative. The construction of a mental model is incremental, as readers continually update their representations with new information, either explicit or implicit (Garnham & Oakhill, 1996). If mental models can be relatively complex, they are nonetheless most likely tributary to readers' limited processing capacities (e.g., Baddeley, 1996), which may limit possible inferences as the text is being processed (i.e., online). Not surprisingly, research on inferences has repeatedly tried to identify which inferences are made online, and which are not, leading to a certain controversy on the actual need to make certain inferences.

In this study, we focus on the mental representation readers construct of the affective state of the main character in short narratives, which has typically been subject to controversy as to whether it was inferred online or not. If some theories suggest that this type of inference may not be drawn during reading (e.g., the minimalist view of reading from McKoon & Rattcliff, 1992), others consider it essential for global coherence, giving it an online status (e.g., the constructionist view of reading by Graesser et al., 1994). Although of prime concern in early research on the matter, the relevance of these theories has been questioned with regard to the complexity of the processes involved in emotional inferences (e.g., Gygax, Tapiero, & Carrozzo, 2007). Most importantly, and this study furthers this idea, individual differences may well modulate the actual integration and complexity of the main character's emotional status in readers' mental models.

Gernsbacher, Goldsmith, and Robertson (1992) were among the first to conduct a series of experiments investigating readers' ability to mentally represent the main character's emotional status described in short narratives. In their first two experiments, presenting participants with different narratives portraying emotioneliciting situations, they found that target sentences were read significantly faster when they contained matching emotion terms than when they contained mismatching emotion terms of opposite valence (Experiment 1) or similar valence (Experiment 2). …

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