Lexical Decision Tasks: Definition & Example

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Lexical decision tasks require the person completing the task to determine whether a visual stimuli is a word or not. In this lesson, we will learn all about lexical decision tasks and look at examples.

What Are Lexical Decision Tasks?

Mary is taking an Introduction to Psychology course during her freshman year of college. Mary, along with the rest of the freshmen enrolled in the course, is required to participate in at least one study so she can learn what it is like to be a participant in psychology research. The professor passes around a sign up sheet with a list of available studies, and Mary signs up for a reading study.

Mary is sent into a room with a desk and computer. She will be presented with a group of letters on the computer screen, and must decide as quickly as possible if the letters make a real word or not.

If the letters are a real word, Mary must use the computer mouse to click the '+' icon. If the letters are not a real word, Mary must click the '-' icon. Mary is being asked to complete a lexical decision task.

Lexical decision tasks are tasks that require the participant to quickly choose whether a group of letters make up a real word or not. When completing lexical decision tasks, it isn't enough to make the correct choice, you must also do so quickly. Let's look at some sample lexical decision tasks.

Origination and Example

Lexial decision tasks were first used in an experiment by David Meyer and Roger Schvaneveldt in 1971. Participants were presented with two groups of letters, and were asked to select 'yes' if both groups of letters were words, and 'no' if either one or both groups of letters was not a word.

Sample lexical decision task item in the study conducted by Meyer and Schavaneveldt.

Some of the items included in the study contained real words that were related to each other, like the 'bread' and 'wheat'. They noticed some trends:

  • Participants were quicker at identifying actual words than non-words.
  • Participants were even faster at responding to words that were related to each other rather than dissociated words.

For example, participants were able to identify 'bread' and 'wheat' as words more quickly than they were able to identify 'soap' and 'chair' when the words were presented in pairs. It is also easier for us to identify groups of letters as non-words if the group does not contain a vowel, because most of the words in the English language contain a vowel.

What the Study Demonstrates

Meyer and Schvaneveldt's study demonstrated a phenomenon called priming, which occurs when the response to a visual stimuli (such as a word) is influenced by the stimuli that preceded it.

For example, the fact that showing the word 'bread' (a visual stimuli) right before the participants were presented with 'wheat' (another visual stimuli), made the participants respond faster to identifying 'wheat' as a word is an example of priming. Many lexical decision tasks are paired with priming.

Meyer and Schvaneveldt's study also demonstrated that our semantic memory, which contains our general knowledge, is organized into semantic networks, which can be thought of as a network that contains word or concept meanings that are related.

For example, seeing the word 'bread', activates a node in a semantic network, which primes related words such as 'wheat,' thereby increasing the speed by which we can identify the word 'wheat'.

Mary's Lexical Decision Tasks

Mary was given the following list of words and asked to click '+' if both groups of letters contain words and '-' if either group of letters in the box is not a word. Each box item is presented one pair at a time.

most people will recognize 4 as words faster than all the other options.

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