Associative Asymmetry of Compound Words

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Abstract

Early verbal-memory researchers assumed participants represent memory of a pair of unrelated items with 2 independent, separately modifiable, directional associations. However, memory for pairs of unrelated words (A–B) exhibits associative symmetry: a near-perfect correlation between accuracy on forward (A→?) and backward (?←B) cued recall. This was viewed as arguing against the independent-associations hypothesis and in favor of the hypothesis that associations are remembered as holistic units. Here we test the Holistic Representation hypothesis further by examining cued recall of compound words. If we suppose preexisting words are more unitized than novel associations, the Holistic Representation hypothesis predicts compound words (e.g., ROSE BUD) will have a higher forward–backward correlation than novel compounds (e.g., BRIEF TAX). We report the opposite finding: Compound words, as well as noncompound words, exhibited less associative symmetry than novel compounds. This challenges the Holistic Representation account of associative symmetry. Moreover, preexperimental associates (positional family size) influenced associative symmetry—but asymmetrically: Increasing family size of the last constituent increasing decoupled forward and backward recall, but family size of the 1st constituent had no such effect. In short, highly practiced, meaningful associations exhibit associative asymmetry, suggesting associative symmetry is not diagnostic of holistic representations but, rather, is a characteristic of ad hoc associations. With additional learning, symmetric associations may be replaced by directional, independently modifiable associations as verbal associations become embedded within a rich knowledge structure.

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