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Word Association Test

A procedure for investigating how word meanings are stored in memory.

In a word association test, the researcher presents a series of words to individual respondents. For each word, participants are instructed to respond with the first word (i.e., associate) that comes to mind. Freud believed that such responses provided clues to peoples' personalities (free association). Cognitive psychologists, however, use this procedure to investigate how semantic information is stored in memory. Studies have demonstrated that word associations are almost always based on a word's meaning, as opposed to its physical properties. For example, a typical response to the word KNIFE might be FORK or perhaps SPOON, but not WIFE or LIFE. Over the years, psychologists have collected word association norms that describe the relative frequencies with which various responses are given to different words. These frequencies are then used as a measure of the associative strength between the words. If 90% of a large sample of people give the word DOCTOR as a response to the word NURSE, this percentage (90) is used as an index of the associative connection between DOCTOR and NURSE. Another way of determining the strength of an association is to measure how much time it takes to produce a response in a word association test. High frequency associates are also the ones with the fastest reaction times.

By comparing children's word associations to those of adults, we can learn something about how word meanings are acquired. Five year-olds are likely to respond to the word LONG with a response like GRASS—indicating that words are organized in their memory according to real world situations and personal experience. By age 10, the most common response is SHORT, thereby revealing a growing awareness of linguistic relations and grammatical categories.

See also Free association

Timothy E. Moore

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Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Tests & Methods