Verbal working memory and linguistic long-term memory: Exploring the lexical cohort effect

  • Benjamin KowialiewskiEmail author
  • Steve Majerus


Numerous studies have shown that verbal working memory (vWM) performance is strongly influenced by linguistic knowledge, with items more familiar at sublexical, lexical, and/or semantic levels leading to higher vWM recall performance. Among the many different psycholinguistic variables whose impact on vWM has been studied, the lexical cohort effect is one of the few effects that has not yet been explored. The lexical cohort effect reflects the fact that words sharing their first phonemes with many other words (e.g. alcove, alligator, alcohol…) are typically responded to more slowly as compared to words sharing their first phonemes with a smaller number of words. In a pilot experiment (Experiment 1), we manipulated the lexical cohort effect in an immediate serial recall task and found no effect. Experiment 2 showed that, in a lexical decision task, participants responded more quickly to items stemming from small cohorts, showing that the material used in Experiment 1 allowed for a valid manipulation of the cohort effect. Experiment 3, using stimuli from Experiment 2 associated with maximal cohort effects during lexical decision, failed again to reveal a cohort effect in an immediate serial recall task. We argue that linguistic knowledge impacts vWM performance via continuous interactive activation within the linguistic system, which is not the case for the lexical cohort variable that may influence language processing only at the initial stages of stimulus activation.


Working memory Cohort competition Linguistic knowledge 



We thank S. Moes and C. Tonon for their help in data acquisition and all the participants for their time devoted to this study.


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Copyright information

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Psychology and Neuroscience of Cognition Research Unit (PsyNCog)University of LiègeLiègeBelgium
  2. 2.Fund for Scientific Research – F.R.S.-FNRSBrusselsBelgium

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