Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Is Naming Faces Different from Naming Objects? Semantic Interference in a Face- and Object-Naming Task

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Is Naming Faces Different from Naming Objects? Semantic Interference in a Face- and Object-Naming Task

Article excerpt

Published online: 16 October 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract A current debate regarding face and object naming concerns whether they are equally vulnerable to semantic interference. Although some studies have shown similar patterns of interference, others have revealed different effects for faces and objects. In Experiment 1, we compared face naming to object naming when exemplars were presented in a semantically homogeneous context (grouped by their category) or in a semantically heterogeneous context (mixed) across four cycles. The data revealed significant slowing for both face and object naming in the homogeneous context. This semantic interference was explained as being due to lexical competition from the conceptual activation of category members. When focusing on the first cycle, a facilitation effect for objects but not for faces appeared. This result permits us to explain the previously observed discrepancies between face and object naming. Experiment 2 was identical to Experiment 1, with the exception that half of the stimuli were presented as face/object names for reading. Semantic interference was present for both face and object naming, suggesting that faces and objects behave similarly during naming. Interestingly, during reading, semantic interference was observed for face names but not for object names. This pattern is consistent with previous assumptions proposing the activation of a person identity during face name reading.

Keywords Semantic memory . Face processing . Interference/inhibition . Memory retrieval . Language production


We have all suffered from the embarrassing experience of not being able to retrieve the name of a well-known person. Actually, empirical data show that face naming is a difficult process: For example, relative to object naming, face naming is slower and more error prone (Johnston & Bruce, 1990; Young, Ellis, & Flude, 1988; Young, Hay, & Ellis, 1985; Young, McWeeny, Ellis, & Hay, 1986).

Different theoretical models have been proposed to explain these naming difficulties. Thus, most models of face processing (Burton, Bruce, & Johnston, 1990; Valentine, Brennen, & Brédart, 1996) assume connectionist architectures with bidirectional excitatory links between different unit pools. In this way, seeing the face of a known person activates its stored representation at the face recognition unit (FRU), which spreads to the person identity node (PIN), where the face is identified as being familiar. These PINs are considered to be token markers that provide parallel access to both semantic information and name representations, which can be stored together (Burton et al., 1990) at the semantic information unit (SIU) or in separate pools (Valentine et al., 1996). In addition, due to the bidirectional excitatory links, the activation of semantic features can activate related identities at the PIN unit (e.g., seeing the face of John Wayne may activate Clint Eastwood's identity).

Representations at the PIN level are specific to face naming, since they are not needed in object naming, in which semantic activation spreads directly to the lexical level (Brédart, Brennen, & Valentine, 1997; Valentine, Hollis, & Moore, 1998). In addition, whereas lexical entries during face naming are only activated by unique links from the PINs pool-that is, there is only one John Wayne-the lexical representations during object naming can receive activation from several concepts-that is, there are many types of chairs (Levelt, Roelofs, & Meyer, 1999). For this reason, proper names receive less activation than do common names, making face naming more difficult than object naming.

In sum, for both faces and objects the activation of semantic features spreads to lexical entries during speech, via the PIN in face naming, or directly in object naming. This semantic activation is assumed to be the cause of interference in object naming. …

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