Processing pronouns: Effects of content-based properties of potential antecedents and similarity-based interference
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This report examines the process of antecedent identification for pronouns, which is an essential part of language comprehension in general. The interactive-parallel constraint model proposes that antecedent resolution is the result of many structural and non-structural constraints competing simultaneously, suppressing and enhancing the activation levels of potential antecedents within the discourse representation (Gernsbacher, 1989; MacDonald & MacWhinney, 1990). This model is supported by previous evidence that the gender of grammatically-inaccessible antecedents, according to Principle B of binding theory (Chomsky, 1981), affects antecedent resolution (Badecker & Straub, 2002). Using a word-by-word self-paced reading methodology, this experiment investigated whether this ‘multiple-candidate effect’ can instead be attributed to the basic difficulty encoding a sentence containing two less distinguishable referents of the same gender as compared to different genders, termed the ‘memory load hypothesis’. The results did not replicate the multiple-candidate effect, and found no support for the memory load hypothesis in early processing. Results in later processing revealed a conflicting effect of slower reading times for words located towards the end of a sentence that contained two referents of different genders as opposed to being gender congruent. This effect could be attributable to a process in which readers attempt to bind the pronoun to the most-recently processed grammatically-inaccessible antecedent within the sentence, or it might be evidence of gender-based priming in referent encoding. Finally, evidence for the memory load hypothesis was found on response times in the probe recognition task; responses were longer if the probe followed a sentence containing two proper names of congruent gender, irrespective of whether the sentence required antecedent resolution. A type of similarity-based interference was apparently affecting probe responses; it seems the same processes that are accessed in initial sentence processing are re-accessed in later probe sentence-checking.