Dynamics of the Attentional Control of Word Retrieval: Analyses of Response Time Distributions

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Since W. Wundt (1904) and H. J. Watt (1906), researchers have found no agreement on how goals direct word retrieval. A prevailing associative account (E. K. Miller & J. D. Cohen, 2001) holds that goals bias association strength, which determines retrieval latency and whether irrelevant words interfere. A symbolic account (A. Roelofs, 2003) holds that goals enable retrieval rules and predicts no strict dependence of interference on latency. Here, 3 chronometric experiments in which the role of relative retrieval latency was investigated through distributional analyses, following Watt, are reported. Participants verbally categorized picture–word pairs that were semantically related or unrelated, or they categorized single pictures or words. The pairs yielded semantic latency effects in both word and picture categorizing, although single words were categorized slower than single pictures. Semantic effects occurred in word categorizing even when postexposure of the pictures compensated for the difference in categorizing latency. Vincentile and ex-Gaussian analyses revealed that the semantic effects occurred throughout the latency distributions, excluding goal neglect as the cause of the effects. The results were interpreted as most consistent with the symbolic account, which was corroborated by computer simulations.

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