When does length cause the word length effect?


The word length effect, the finding that lists of short words are better recalled than lists of long words, has been termed one of the benchmark findings that any theory of immediate memory must account for. Indeed, the effect led directly to the development of working memory and the phonological loop, and it is viewed as the best remaining evidence for time-based decay. However, previous studies investigating this effect have confounded length with orthographic neighborhood size. In the present study, Experiments 1A and 1B revealed typical effects of length when short and long words were equated on all relevant dimensions previously identified in the literature except for neighborhood size. In Experiment 2, consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words with a large orthographic neighborhood were better recalled than were CVC words with a small orthographic neighborhood. In Experiments 3 and 4, using two different sets of stimuli, we showed that when short (1-syllable) and long (3-syllable) items were equated for neighborhood size, the word length effect disappeared. Experiment 5 replicated this with spoken recall. We suggest that the word length effect may be better explained by the differences in linguistic and lexical properties of short and long words rather than by length per se. These results add to the growing literature showing problems for theories of memory that include decay offset by rehearsal as a central feature.

DOI: 10.1037/a0021804
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@article{Jalbert2011WhenDL, title={When does length cause the word length effect?}, author={Annie Jalbert and Ian Neath and Tamra J Bireta and Aim{\'e}e M. Surprenant}, journal={Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition}, year={2011}, volume={37 2}, pages={338-53} }