Word Length, Set Size, and Lexical Factors: Re-Examining What Causes the Word Length Effect

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The word length effect, better recall of lists of short (fewer syllables) than long (more syllables) words has been termed a benchmark effect of working memory. Despite this, experiments on the word length effect can yield quite different results depending on set size and stimulus properties. Seven experiments are reported that address these 2 issues. Experiment 1 replicated the finding of a preserved word length effect under concurrent articulation for large stimulus sets, which contrasts with the abolition of the word length effect by concurrent articulation for small stimulus sets. Experiment 2, however, demonstrated that when the short and long words are equated on more dimensions, concurrent articulation abolishes the word length effect for large stimulus sets. Experiment 3 shows a standard word length effect when output time is equated, but Experiments 4–6 show no word length effect when short and long words are equated on increasingly more dimensions that previous demonstrations have overlooked. Finally, Experiment 7 compared recall of a small and large neighborhood words that were equated on all the dimensions used in Experiment 6 (except for those directly related to neighborhood size) and a neighborhood size effect was still observed. We conclude that lexical factors, rather than word length per se, are better predictors of when the word length effect will occur.

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