associative response heterogeneity: an indicator of stimulus word semantic autonomy

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  • Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 1987, 28,6Y-74

    Associative response heterogeneity: an indicator of stimulus word semantic autonomy

    KJELL FLEKKBY Departmenr of Neurology, Ullevaal Hospital, Oslo, Norway

    FlekkGy, K.: Associative response heterogeneity: an indicator of stimulus word semantic autonomy. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 1987, 28, 69-74.

    The total number of different responses, given by a group of subjects to a stimulus word in a single-word, free-association situation ( D ) , is a primary determinant of associative response latency (Tecce & Glassco, 1965; Flekkay. 1981). D has traditionally been assumed to reflect a words associative potential, and the increased latency to high D words has been explained by response competition. The results of the present experiments indicate, however, that D reflects in an inverse manner semantic auronomy. high D words requiring more contextual information for their semantic specification than low D words. The process of semantic specification requires time, creating the positive D-response latency relationship. Based on a semantic interpretation of D , associutive response heterogeneity may be used as an index of a words semantic autonomy.

    K. Flekkoy, Department of Ntwrology, Ullevaal Hospiral, Oslo. Norwcry

    Associative response heterogeneity, defined as the number of different responses given to a stimulus word by a group of subjects in a single-word, free-association situation (D), has traditionally been interpreted as the number of different associative responses that the word could give rise to in the individual-the words associutive potenfinl (Laffal, 1955; Stilson, et u l . , 1972). Based on the Kent & Rosanoff (1910) stimulus material, response latency has been shown to be positively related to D (Goldstein, 1961; Tecce & Glossco. 1965). F l e k k ~ y (1973a) found a correlation of 0.83 between these two variables, and in Flekkoy (1981), D was the single most powerful predictor of associative response latency, outranking response frequency and stimulus grammatical form class, commonality and emotionality. Given the original interpretation of D, the positive relationship between D and response latency has been related to response competition: only one response being allowed at a time, a large number of competing associations would be expected to delay the responding. As an avenue for exploring determinants of associative response latency, D will be studied further here. An understanding of D is also important for other reasons: it is of value in itself; it may help to clarify the relationship between group data (on which D is based) and individual data, and it may contribute to an understanding of how words are stored in memory (Estes, 1978).



    Stimuli were the 50 first Kent-Rosanoff (K-K) words, presented orally (in Norwegian), one word at a time in individual sessions (Kent & Rosanoff, 1910). The subjects were tested twice, a mean of 11 days apart; the first time in a single-word, free-association situation, the second time in a continued association situation. To avoid chain associations, each stimulus word was written on a card and shown to the subject during responding in

  • 70 K. Flekk@y Scand J Psycho1 28 (1987)

    the continued situation. The instructions were to return to the stimulus word prior to each response. An interval of 30 sec was allowed for taped responding to each stimulus word, because a previous study had shown that most responses were emitted during the first 15-20 sec. This was independent of the stimulus word (Flekkoy, 1973~). A response was always identified with a single word and only accepted if it could be found in a standard Norwegian dictionary.

    Subjects were 26 students of psychology at the University of Oslo (15 women, 11 men). Their mean age was 21.2 years, range 19-25 years.

    Results and discussion The linear correlation between D and the mean number of different responses given to a stimulus word by the subjects in the continued situation ( m ) was -0.08 (df=49, n.s.). This confirms the results of F lekk~y (1973b). Thus, assuming that m is a valid measure of individual associative domains, D cannot be a measure of such domains. On the same prerequisite, prolonged latencies of high D responses cannot derive from response competition.


    Method The task (Flekkoy, 1980) was presented as an investigation of how different people experience common words. In a group session, the subjects were instructed to score each of the 100 K-R words according to strength and quality of the feelings evoked by the stimulus word on a scale extending from -5 to +5. Strong negative feelings were to be scored -5; strong good feelings + 5 , with zero as neutral. The instructions further stressed that the words were to be scored independently of each other, and in a spontane- ous manner. Examples were given, and the subjects were invited to ask questions. A small pamphlet, each page containing one K-R word and the scale, was then handed out, and the session started. The D values of the stimulus words were based on the single-word, free-associative responses given to the full K-R list by 176 normal subjects (Flekk~y, 1981). A test of homogeneity in multinomial trials (Sverdrup, 1964) was used in the analysis of the relationship between D and types of responses.

    Subjects were 11 females and eight male nurses at Ullevaal Hospital, age 23-27 years; mean age 25.7 years.

    Results and discussion The linear correlations between D and the mean emotionality scores representing (a) good and (b) negative feelings, were negligible ( r s O . 10, df=99, p>0.05, based on T-scores) (Guilford, 1965). Furthermore, the mean emotionality score, irrespective of sign, was nearly identical for the 36 highest D (3.6. s.d.=1.8) and the 36 lowest D (3.2, s.d.=1.7) stimulus words (18 from each half of the K-R list). Therefore, the strength of emotions as defined here was not related to D. Similarly, no differences were observed between the highest D and the lowest D words with respect to the number of times they were scored as representing good or negative feelings. There was a tendency, however, for high D words to be scored as representing negative feelings and for the low D words to be neutral. Thus, neither strength, nor direction of emotion evoked by the stimulus words were significantly related to D.

    Intuitively, emotionality might be expected to be related to the production of associations, to response latency (e.g. good emotions contributing to easy access and short

  • Sand J Psycho1 28 (1987) Associative response heterogeneify 71

    latency), and t o sorting behaviour in word sorting tasks (see Exp. 3 ) . The results indicate, however, that emotionality as defined here is not related to D, nor to variables with which D is associated. The latter implication was brought out in Flekksy (1980) who found no correlation between response latency and strength of good and negative feelings, respectively.


    Method The task was to sort K-R nouns into groups on the basis of similarity of semantic meaning. It was introduced as an investigation of differences among people with respect to their interpretation of common words. First, the subject was shown 16 K-R words, each printed on small cards. The instructions continued (in Norwegian): You will be given several sets of words, similar to the present set and containing about the same number of words. For each set your task will be to group words together according to their similarity of meaning. including as many words in each group as you wish. That is, you may choose to combine all the words in a set into one group, or just to include one word. When you select words for a group, try to think of what each word means, what it refers to, independently of the other words (semantic meaning). Two new sets of words were presented to the subject, three and nine words in each, and various combinations were demonstrated to clarify the differences between associative, emotive, and semantic meaning. The following is an example of a semantic sorting of the nine-word set: (a) Anirnnl, ,\.lother, Boy; (b) Ship, Craft; (c) Sweat, Tears; (d) Jeafoicsy, Sorrow. The subject was asked to return to the 16 words originally shown to him, and to sort these into groups according to semantic similarity, the experimenter endeavouring to correct any sorting based on emotive and associative rather than semantic connections between the words. After necessary explana- tions, the experimenter proceeded to present the stimulus words: 56 nouns from the K-R list, divided into two sets of high D and two sets of low D words, each set containing 12-16 words. From now on. the sorting was recorded without further comments. Each set of words was presented in a scrambled fashion, one set at a time, the sequence of high D and low D sets being random. One high D and one low D set was taken from the 50 first K-R words, the two other sets from the 50 last K-R words. The D values were based on 176 persons (Flekksy, 1981). The subject was told to be spontaneous in his sorting, but he could have the time he needed. If a word had several distinctly different meanings, he was to base his sorting on the first meaning that came to mind. The task was performed in individual sessions.

    Data analysis The principal question asked was this: how often are the same two words sorted together by two or more individuals? If only one word was included in a group in a given sorting, the same question was asked for this one word. The sorting of each person was thus compared with that of every other person. The numb