César Gutiérrez presenting at Psychonomic Society

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A single exposure to both meanings of ambiguous words helps rather than hinders processing of subordinate meanings

Many English words have multiple meanings. Less frequent (subordinate) meanings are harder to access than dominant meanings. Studies have shown that one encounter with subordinate meanings reduces this difficulty. However, natural language exposure includes both meanings and this could increase processing difficulty due to competition. In Experiment 1 60 native English speakers read natural sentences containing ambiguous words (one per meaning) and control sentences containing unambiguous words. Results from a semantic relatedness post-test showed that mixed exposure made subsequent processing of subordinate meanings non-significantly faster and significantly more accurate, with no change for dominant meanings and unambiguous words. Experiment 2 (preregistered, N=182) replicated the mixed-training boost for subordinate meanings in both reaction times and error rates. In addition, we found an unexpected training benefit for the unambiguous items. These results reveal that exposure to both meanings of an ambiguous word enhances performance for the more difficult subordinate meaning.