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The lexical decision task is an experimental paradigm for exploring aspects of the storage of lexical or verbal information in memory.

The lexical decision task is a procedure used in many psychology and psycholinguistics experiments. The basic procedure involves measuring how quickly people classify stimuli as words or nonwords. Although versions of the task had been used by researchers for a number of years, the term lexical decision task was coined by David E. Meyer and Roger W. Schvaneveldt, who brought the task to prominence in a series of studies on the structure of verbal memory and its components lexical memory and semantic memory in the early 1970s. Since then, the task has been used in thousands of studies of lexical access in general.

The task

Subjects are presented, either visually or auditorily, with a mixture of words and pseudowords (nonsense strings that respect the phonotactic rules of a language, like trud in English). Their task is to indicate, usually with a button-press, whether the presented stimulus is a word or not.

The analysis is based on the reaction times (and, secondarily, the error rates) for the various conditions for which the words (or the pseudowords) differ. A very common effect is that of frequency: words that are more frequent are recognized faster. The pattern of response latencies is taken as a measure of lexical memory and allows for the development of processing models. So in a well designed experiment, one can draw theoretical inferences from differences like this. For instance, we might conclude that common words have a stronger mental representation than uncommon words.

Lexical decision tasks are often combined with other experimental techniques, such as priming, in which the subject is 'primed' with a certain stimulus before the actual lexical decision task has to be performed. In this way, it has been shown that subjects are faster to respond to words when they are first shown a semantically related prime: participants are faster to confirm "nurse" as a word when it is preceded by "doctor" than when it is preceded by "butter".

See also


Harley, Trevor (2001). The Psychology of Language. From Data To Theory, Hove: Psychology Press. ISBN 0-86377-866-6.

Meyer, D. E., and Schvaneveldt, R. W. (1971). Facilitation in recognizing pairs of words: Evidence of a dependence between retrieval operations. Journal of Experimental Pyschology, 90, 227-234.

External links