Nader T. Tavassoli
London Business School
Writing pervades modern life as a principle vehicle of communication. Writing is also the vehicle in which cognitive and social psychologists present experimental stimuli and collect responses, as evidence of mental activity. Written language is, therefore, a central aspect of everyday life and is at the core of research on memory, attitude formation, persuasion, inference making, problem solving, and so on. However, most psychological knowledge is derived from and tested in research conducted with participants processing and reporting words written in alphabetic scripts.
Most languages rely on alphabetic writing systems that consist of symbols representing sounds. Alphabetic scripts include the Latin alphabet (e.g., English and Spanish) and Arabic, Hebrew, and Cyrillic scripts (e.g., Russian). However, approximately one-quarter of the world population reads Chinese logographs, which are morphemes: symbols that represent meaning. Japanese and Korean use both types of script. For example, Korean uses Hancha, which is based on Chinese logographs, and Hangul, which is an alphabet. The premise of this review is that the basic processing of alphabetic and logographic scripts differs in fundamental ways.
I begin by highlighting relative differences in reading alphabetic and logographic scripts. I then review a growing body of research that shows how these relative differences can affect higher order processes involved in memory and evaluative judgments. This includes findings on memory for a word's font style and print color, associations in memory between words and nonverbal images and sounds, and auditory and visual interference in the processing of words. I also review findings on spatial and temporal processing differences that provide the basis for memory-based judgments, complex thought, and decision making. I conclude by summarizing how scripts, independent of language, can affect thought in profound ways.