The mechanism underlying backward priming in a lexical decision task: Spreading activation versus semantic matching

Koriat (1981) demonstrated that an association from the target to a preceding prime, in the absence of an association from the prime to the target, facilitates lexical decision and referred to this effect as "backward priming". Backward priming is of relevance, because it can provide information about the mechanism underlying semantic priming effects. Following Neely (1991), we distinguish three mechanisms of priming: spreading activation, expectancy, and semantic matching/integration. The goal was to determine which of these mechanisms causes backward priming, by assessing effects of backward priming on a language-relevant ERP component, the N400, and reaction time (RT). Based on previous work, we propose that the N400 priming effect reflects expectancy and semantic matching/integration, but in contrast with RT does not reflect spreading activation. Experiment 1 shows a backward priming effect that is qualitatively similar for the N400 and RT in a lexical decision task. This effect was not modulated by an ISI manipulation. Experiment 2 clarifies that the N400 backward priming effect reflects genuine changes in N400 amplitude and cannot be ascribed to other factors. We will argue that these backward priming effects cannot be due to expectancy but are best accounted for in terms of semantic matching/integration.
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