Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Simpson: "Context and the Processing of Ambiguous Words" (1994)

In his chapter of the 1994 edition of the Handbook of Psycholinguistics, Greg B. Simpson discusses a large number of ambiguity resolution studies. His conclusion from reviewing these studies is that it is not clear whether sentence-level comprehension can feed back into lexical recall or not.

After stating this pessimistic conclusion, he writes:
In an earlier review, (Simpson, 1984), I tried to argue that the constellation of results at that time could be explained by positing a system whereby all meanings are activated, but with the degree of activation being sensitive to influence by the relative frequencies of the meaning and by the context in which the ambiguous word occurs. There does not seem to be any compelling reason to change that position now. (p. 367)
Later in the article, he illustrates the need for methodological caution with a contrast between two studies, that of Paul et al. (1992) and that of Till et al. (1988).

Both of these studies are about priming, and both of them show that a sentence as a whole can prime for things that its individual components cannot.

The two examples that Simpson discusses (p. 368ff) are:
  • Paul et al.: The boy dropped the plant (primes spill)
  • Till et al.: The old man sat with his head own and did not hear a word of the sermon during mass (primes sleep)
That seems reasonable — in fact, the first time I read that the Till et al. sentence primes sleep, I was for a second completely sure that the word had actually occurred explicitly in the sentence.

So far the studies are consistent. They differ on their story about the time course of these priming effects, however: Paul et al. found that the holistic prime quickly decayed and had vanished after a delay of 500ms. Till et al., on the other hand, found that the holistic priming effect only appeared after "long intervals" (but Simpson doesn't write how long; p. 369).

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