Abstract: Mechanisms that improve referential access

GERNSBACHER, M. A. (1989). Mechanisms that improve referential access. Cognition, 32, 99-156.

Two mechanisms, suppression and enhancement, are proposed to improve referential access. Enhancement improves the accessibility of previously mentioned concepts by increasing or boosting their activation; suppression improves concepts’ accessibility by decreasing or dampening the activation of other concepts. Presumably, these mechanisms are triggered by the informational content of anaphors. Six experiments investigated this proposal by manipulating whether an anaphoric reference was made with a very explicit, repeated name anaphor or a less explicit pronoun. Subjects read sentences that introduced two participants in their first clauses, for example, “Ann predicted that Pam would lose the track race,” and the sentences referred to one of the two participants in their second clauses, “but Pam / she came in first very easily.” While subjects read each sentence, the activation level of the two participants was measured by a probe verification task. The first two experiments demonstrated that explicit, repeated name anaphors immediately trigger the enhancement of their own antecedents and immediately trigger the suppression of other (nonantecedent) participants. The third experiment demonstrated that less explicit, pronoun anaphors also trigger the suppression of other nonantecedents, but they do so less quickly — even when, as in the fourth experiment, the semantic information to identify their antecedents occurs prior to the pronouns (e.g., “Ann predicted that Pam would lose the track race. But after winning the race, she …”). The fifth experiment demonstrated that more explicit pronouns — pronouns that match the gender of only one participant — trigger suppression more powerfully. A final experiment demonstrated that it is not only rementioned participants who improve their referential access by triggering the suppression of other participants; newly introduced participants do so too (e.g., “Ann predicted that Pam would lose the track race, but Kim …”). Thus, both suppression and enhancement improve referential access, and the contribution of these two mechanisms is a function of explicitness. The role of these two mechanisms in mediating other referential access phenomena is also discussed.