Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Flying to Neverland: How Readers Tacitly Judge Norms during Comprehension

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Flying to Neverland: How Readers Tacitly Judge Norms during Comprehension

Article excerpt

Published online: 28 June 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract As readers gain experience with specific narrative worlds, they accumulate information that allows them to experience events as normal or unusual within those worlds. In this article, we contrast two accounts for how readers access information about specific narrative worlds to make tacit judgments of normalcy. We conducted two experiments. In Experiment 1, participants read stories about an ordinary character (e.g., a police officer in Boston) or a familiar fantastic character (e.g., Superman). Each story described a realistic event (e.g., the character being killed by bullets) or a fantastic event (e.g., bullets bouncing off the character's chest). Participants were faster to read events that were consistent with their prior knowledge about the story world. In Experiments 2a and 2b, participants read stories about familiar fantastic characters, unfamiliar fantastic characters (e.g., a Kryptonian named Dev-em), and unfamiliar ordinary characters. In Experiment 2a, participants were equally fast to read about the familiar and unfamiliar fantastic characters experiencing fantastic events, both of which were read faster than the unfamiliar ordinary characters sentences. In Experiment 2b, participants were fastest to read about unfamiliar ordinary characters experiencing realistic events and were equally slow for familiar and unfamiliar fantastic characters. Our experiments provide evidence that readers routinely use inductive reasoning to go beyond their prior knowledge when reading fictional narratives, affecting whether they experience events as normal or unusual.

Keywords Narratives * Comprehension * Norms * Inductive reasoning * Fiction

One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading fictional narra- tives is that they provide readers the opportunity to mentally travel to other worlds (Gerrig, 1993). Each narrative world is subject to a unique set of constraints (Dolezel, 1988; Pavel, 1975; Weisberg & Goodstein, 2009). Consider the following excerpt from Peter Pan (1911/2008):

"It's all right," John announced, emerging from his hiding-place. "I say, Peter, can you really fly?"

Instead of troubling to answer him Peter flew around the room, taking the mantelpiece on the way. (p. 19)

This passage transports readers to a world in which one character, at least, can fly. As people continue reading, they have opportunities to see how far this ability generalizes beyond Peter himself. In this article, we explore how readers use their prior knowledge about familiar characters to com- prehend new events within a narrative world. Specifically, we focus on whether readers generalize salient characteristics from familiar characters (e.g., Peter Pan) to unfamiliar char- acters (e.g., another Lost Boy).

Current theories of comprehension focus on activation of information in memory and the integration of that information with the incoming discourse (for a review, see McNamara & Magliano, 2009). An important component of comprehension is the process of validation, in which readers check incoming information against prior knowledge (e.g., Cook & O'Brien, 2014; Rapp, Hinze, Slaten, & Horton, 2014; for reviews, see Kendeou, 2014, and Singer, 2013). For example, Cook and O'Brien found that readers immediately slow down when they encounter information that is strongly inconsistent with prior knowledge (e.g., a vegetarian eating a cheeseburger) but that readers take longer to notice weaker inconsistencies (e.g., a vegetarian eating fish). As this example indicates, validation research has often shown that there is a cost, in terms of slower processing or different patterns of neural activity (e.g., Hagoort, Haid, Bastiaansen, & Petersson, 2004) when incom- ing information mismatches prior knowledge.

We can return to Peter Pan to offer additional analysis on the question of how readers experience new story information as matching or mismatching prior knowledge. …

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