Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Revisiting Effects of Contextual Strength on the Subordinate Bias Effect: Evidence from Eye Movements

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Revisiting Effects of Contextual Strength on the Subordinate Bias Effect: Evidence from Eye Movements

Article excerpt

Published online: 24 May 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract In this study, we examined two issues regarding the role of context in ambiguity resolution: whether access to the contextually appropriate meaning is exhaustive or selective, and whether the contextually inappropriate mean- ing is inhibited. Participants read texts in which a biased ambiguous word was encountered twice while their eye movements were measured. The context preceding the first encounter varied in the extent to which the subordinate meaning was supported; the context preceding the second encounter always supported the dominant meaning. The findings suggest that lexical access is exhaustive but can be influenced by context, and that the subsequent accessibility of the contextually inappropriate meaning is unaffected by previous selection processes. The results were interpreted in terms of the assumptions of the reordered-access model and activation mechanisms that operate during reading.

Keywords Subordinate-bias effect * Lexical ambiguity * Reading


The meanings of ambiguous words (e.g., toast, bank, ruler) can be balanced in frequency or biased, such that one meaning is much more frequent (i.e., dominant) than the other. For biased ambiguous words, dominant meanings are typically accessed more quickly than subordinate meanings (e.g., Rayner & Duffy, 1986; Simpson & Burgess, 1985). An issue of debate in the literature and the focus of this study is the degree to which biasing context can interact with meaning frequency to impact access to both the selected and unselected meanings of biased ambiguous words.

Most of the studies on this topic have used eyetracking to measure early lexical access processes; they have typically reported gaze durations (i.e., initial time spent processing a word prior to moving on in the text) on a biased ambiguous word embedded in either a single sentence (e.g., Dopkins, Morris, & Rayner, 1992; Duffy, Morris, & Rayner, 1988; Folk & Morris, 2003; Rayner, Cook, Juhasz, & Frazier, 2006; Rayner & Duffy, 1986; Rayner & Frazier, 1989; Sereno, 1995; Sereno, Brewer, & O'Donnell, 2003; Sereno, O'Donnell, & Rayner, 2006; Sereno, Pacht, & Rayner, 1992) or a sentence that is part of a passage (e.g., Binder, 2003; Binder & Morris, 1995, 2011; Kambe, Rayner, & Duffy, 2001; Rayner, Pacht, & Duffy, 1994; Wiley & Rayner, 2000). When the context preceding a biased ambiguous word either is neutral or reflects the dominant meaning, gaze dura- tions on the ambiguous word tend to be fast relative to those on a control word matched for length and word frequency (see Sereno et al., 2006). In their reordered access model, Duffy et al. (1988) argued that under these context conditions, the dominant meaning of a biased ambiguous word will be accessed first. This dominant meaning is easy to integrate with the contents of active memory, and thus there is no difference from reading times on a control word. However, when the context preceding the ambiguous word supports the subordi- nate meaning, gaze durations on the ambiguous word are longer than those on a control word. To explain this effect, Duffy et al. argued that context and meaning frequency can interact to influence or "reorder" access to the context- appropriate meaning of an ambiguous word, without influenc- ing access to the context-inappropriate meaning. When the preceding context supports the subordinate meaning, access to that meaning is facilitated but access to the contextually inappropriate (i.e., dominant) meaning is unaffected. Under these circumstances, both the subordinate and dominant meanings may be accessed at approximately the same rate. This competition between alternate meanings results in pro- cessing difficulty for the ambiguous word, as compared to a control condition. This phenomenon has been called the sub- ordinate-bias effect (Pacht & Rayner, 1993; Rayner et al. …

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