Individual Differences in Automatic Semantic Priming

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This research investigated whether masked semantic priming in a semantic categorization task that required classification of words as animals or nonanimals was modulated by individual differences in lexical proficiency. A sample of 89 skilled readers, assessed on reading comprehension, vocabulary and spelling ability, classified target words preceded by brief (50 ms) masked primes that were either congruent or incongruent with the category of the target. Congruent primes were also selected to be either high (e.g., hawk EAGLE, pistol RIFLE) or low (e.g., mole EAGLE, boots RIFLE) in semantic feature overlap with the target. “Overall proficiency,” indexed by high performance on both a “semantic composite” measure of reading comprehension and vocabulary and a “spelling composite,” was associated with stronger congruence priming from both high and low feature overlap primes for animal exemplars, but only predicted priming from low overlap primes for nonexemplars. Classification of high frequency nonexemplars was also significantly modulated by an independent “spelling-meaning” factor, indexed by the discrepancy between the semantic and spelling composites, because relatively higher scores on the semantic than the spelling composite were associated with stronger semantic priming. These findings show that higher lexical proficiency is associated with stronger evidence of automatic semantic priming and suggest that individual differences in lexical quality modulate the division of labor between orthographic and semantic processing in early lexical retrieval.

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