Memory & Cognition

, Volume 8, Issue 6, pp 612-622

First online:

Isolating the effects of symbolic distance, and semantic congruity in comparative judgments: An additive-factors analysis

  • Edward M. DuncanAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of New Orleans
  • , Carl E. McFarlandAffiliated withUniversity of Alabama


The time needed to compare two symbols increases as the cognitive distance between them on the relevant dimension increases (symbolic distance effect). Furthermore, when subjects are told to choose either the larger or the smaller of two stimuli, the response time is shorter if the instruction is congruent with the overall size of the stimuli (semantic congruity effect). Three experiments were conducted to determine the locus of these effects in terms of a sequence of processing stages. The developmental aspects of these effects were also evaluated, as the subjects were from kindergarten, first grade, third grade, fifth grade, and college. By varying the visual quality of the stimulus in each experiment, it was determined that the distance effect resides in a comparison stage, whereas the congruity effect is an encoding phenomenon. Both distance and congruity effects were present at all grade levels, but they decreased in magnitude as grade increased. The results were interpreted relative to recent models of comparative judgments.