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The effect of context, and the relationship of cue and target, in word recognition performance Assignment

The purpose of this experiment is to test the findings of Fisher (1979), who found a significant relationship between target to cue relationship and target recognition ability. Fisher, however, did not account for ability when no cue was present at all. In the current experiment, participants had to remember target words from a series of word pairs which had been designed to have varying target to cue and cue to target relationships. Different groups took part in the cues present and cues absent conditions. There was a trend indicating that Fisher had been right in his assessment of target to cue relationships influencing recognition. However, there was no difference in effect when cues were present or absent- indicating that there was no benefit to the presence of cue words. While it is possible that this was proof against Fishers findings, it is highly possible that it may be an internal methodological weakness.


Recognition, when discussing memory, is the ability of a person to acknowledge that something observed is already present within their memory- thus, sensory input is categorised as either present in memory (recognised) or not present in memory (not recognised). Furthermore, recognition is noted as being significantly more adept in terms of memory ability when compared to the similar process, recall- possibly because context can both benefit or inhibit recall, while recognition is thought by many to be unaffected by context (Groeger, 1959). Mandler et al (1969) tested recall and recognition performance comparatively and found scores of 38% and 96% respectively. A good example highlighting this distinction is the experience of be ing unable to remember the name of an acquaintance: while we may be unable to recall the name of the person, if someone were to tell us the name it would usually be easily recognisable as the correct name (Eysenck and Keane, 2005).

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It is possible that the supposed increase in strength of recognition over recall may be that in scientific tests the overlap between the information presented as a cue, and the information present in memory is identical, due to the fact that recall tests provide only a cue (usually contextual information), whereas recognition tests provide an exact duplicate of the original information (Muter, 1978). It is possible, therefore, because the strength of the contextual relationship effects recall, that in some cases recall may out perform recognition if the overlap between the stored information and the memory cue is greater for a recall task than a recognition task of the same items.

It is also important to note the effect of the targets and their features, and as words are a common example of test item, word frequency plays an important role- which causes problems for ‘strength’ theories of memory retrieval on a practical level (Baddeley, 1991) because it may be methodologically difficult to assess the apparent difference in strength for recognition and recall memory when word frequency effects both in opposite ways. While it might be easy to think that words that are used more commonly, or ‘high frequency words’, would be generally easier to remember in all tasks, this is not the case. A simple ‘strength’ theory such as this would indicate that the stronger the existing memory trace the more readily something would be recalled or recognised- however, according to Gregg (1976) lower word frequency goes hand in hand with recognition, while words that appear more frequently are better used in recall situations.

Schulman (1976) found that when words were so unfamiliar as to be considered non-words, frequency effects were not present- showing poorer recognition than both high or low frequency words- and it was suggested that this was due to the fact that no representation of these words existed in memory, thus making it a different task, more difficult than word recognition.

Morton (1969) suggested that recognition occurs in tandem with cognitive word recognition units, or logogens- specific cognitive units with the purpose of recognising specific words. These logogens have a number of features, including a resting ‘level’ as well as a threshold for activation must surpass in order for recognition to be forwarded onto higher level cognitive systems. This activation is achieved by some form of cue, and in Morton’s logogen model, the threshold was relative to the recency and frequency of usage- and may also be affected by contextual priming.

This, however, only scratches the surface of the relationship between context and recognition. For example, to go back to the distinction between recall and recognition, it is worth considering that if a copy of a target item truly facilitates recognition, as apposed to the contextual clues that are involved in recall performance, then the relative strength of these effects can be effected by the strength of context- which echoes the findings of Muter (1978), outlined above. Further to this point are the ideas presented by Lockhart, Craik & Jacoby (1976, as cited by Fisher 1979), who explored the interaction of cue and target in recognition and recall memory. One core idea presented here was that because the processes of recall and recognition could differ in strength independently based on the relative overlap between cue and target, then it is a fair assumption that in some contexts it might be more effective to have a contextual cue rather than a copy of the target.

Fisher (1979) also concerned himself with this specific sort of overlap- explaining that there were three functions working together as part of a larger process: the recall cue, the encoded trace, and the recognition cue. Fisher outlined the separate mechanism for the two processes- recognition and recall, as being an overlap between the relevant cue, and the encoded trace, thus recognition was the result of overlap between the recognition cue and the encoded trace, and recall was the overlap of the encoded trace and the recall cue. The logical continuation of this would be that it is possible to manipulate recognition performance independently of recall, in this case by manipulating the recognition cue.

Mandler (1980), however, suggested that there were only two stages in recognition: familiarity, and source memory- or the context in which it was originally encoded. This addressed earlier work by Mandler and Boeck (1974) which found that when subjects were asked to spontaneously grouped words by subject, those with more categories- and thus more contextual specificity- performed better in both recall and recognition tasks, solidifying the theory that context plays a role in recognition. In the same experiment, a week later- this initial organisation still seemed to effect those that performed relatively slowly on a later recognition test, but not those that performed relatively quickly- with the conclusion that faster responses depended on familiarity, while slower responses relied on elements of context.

Earlier work by Bartlett (1932) also looked at the ability to independently manipulate recall and recognition memory. Bartlett suggested that it was tied to event specific memories- the point at which the memory trace was originally introduced. Bartlett hypothesised that recollection was in fact an elaboration of retrieved information, further guided by a pre-existing store of information, and the stronger this association is the more accurate the reconstruction, and thus recall and recognition behave similarly.

The distinction, however, lies in the retrieval cue: recall uses a contextually similar item, while recognition uses a reproduction of the information- and therefore recognition is affected by the strength of association from a target item to the information stored about the event, where as recall is affected by the existing association between a contextual cue and a stored episodic event. As discussed earlier, from this it is fair to assume that in some cases a contextual cue may be more useful than a copy of the target- which may well lead to the assumption that an episodic trace- the existing representation of the memory- is not necessarily a copy of the target in recognition memory, but may also be the end result of operations performed upon them, as well as the context surrounding them (Tulving, 1976, as cited by Fisher, 1976).

It was this that Fisher (1976), mentioned earlier, took as a jumping off point in examining the effect of existing associations between information in a retrieval cue and an already encoded event. Fisher believed that, based on the Bartlett’s (1932) work that recall and recognition were similar processes which differed based on the individual features of the cues available- recall using a preexperimental association; recognition using a nominal copy of the target.

Fisher continued by saying that it was expected that the preexperimental association from the target item to the information in the episodic event would be the feature that most strongly determines the ability to recognise the original event, with recall using the opposite relationship (the relationship from the cue to the target). Fisher tested these by having subjects learn a set of word pairs (a cue word and a target word) with distinct relationships between the cue and targets insofar that the cue was either easy or difficult to produce from the target, and the target was either easy or difficult to produce from the cue. It was the second set, in which the relationship from the target to the cue was manipulated, that Fisher believed would affect recognition ability.

The reason that fisher believed this particular relationship would effect because of the backwards association. Rabinowits et al (1977) later elaborated in this same idea, providing the explanation that failure of recognition could be due to the failure of backwards retrieval- a target of a word pair is not recognised due to the inability to retrieve the first word of the pair when the target is given as a cue (as is standard in recognition tests). This would suggest, therefore, that subjects were observing the target word in the context of the paired word and thus were using it to aid in recognition. Fisher’s ideas on this phenomenon extended further- he believed that the specific relationship of the target to the cue was responsible for the strength of the recognition performance and this could be manipulated, as outlined in his work discussed above.

There was, however, some possible elements missing from Fisher’s own work. While he did use both strong and weak target to cue relationships (as well as cue to target relationships, as he was simultaneously assessing recall) he did not factor in a control condition and thus did not test to see if there was a true effect of the cue word in the first place. This is the point at which the present experiment begins.

The purpose of the current experiment is to test the theory established by Fisher (1979), confirming the positive effects of backwards association- specifically high target to cue relatedness- in recognition ability. However, expanding on the original method, this experiment aims to test the true effect of this theory by implementing an additional between subjects condition which will have no cue words- thus acting as a control condition. Based on previous work in this area, it is safe to assume that the present experiment will confirm Fisher’s own results. More specifically, however, there are two main predictions for the outcome of this experiment.

Primarily, based on much of the work outlined above, it is predicted that recognition performance will increase significantly when there is a high degree of relatedness from the target to the cue. Conversely, there will be a poorer, possibly inhibited ability to recognise target words when the relationship from the target to the cue is low.

Secondly, when no cue word is present at all- and instead only the target word is displayed, there will be significantly worse performance than when there is a cue word present with a strong target to cue relationship. It is likely that all words will be subject to a flatness of effect, and thus all be recognised equally well at test.

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