When it comes to the dictionary of the mind, size counts. I’m not talking about the printed size of a word, but rather the size of the object that the word denotes. A new study shows that we’re faster at processing words that refer to big things than we are at processing words that denote small things.
Sara Sereno and colleagues presented 28 participants with: 45 “big” words, such as truck and whale; 45 “small” words, such as bacteria and teaspoon; as well as 90 nonsense words, such as blimble. The participants’ task was to press one of two keys as quickly and accurately as possible to indicate whether the presented word was a real word or a nonsense word.
Even though the “big” and “small” words were matched carefully across a range of characteristics – such as how easy they were to imagine, their frequency and length – the researchers found that participants were significantly quicker, by a fraction of a second, at identifying “big” words compared with “small” words. Even after taking into account other possible confounds, such as the time it takes to utter the words, the result still held.
Sereno’s team said their findings are consistent with past research showing that bigger things get prioritised in the brain. A classic study even showed that this works in reverse, such that we tend to perceive things we value more as being bigger.
“We suggest that a reason why bigger items might generate faster responses is related to imageability,” the researchers wrote. “While both bigger and smaller items can be equally highly imageable (and were in our experiment), it may be that the relative speed of accessing a stored visual representation is faster when the object is bigger.”
Sereno, S., O’Donnell, P., & Sereno, M. (2009). Size matters: Bigger is faster. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62 (6), 1115-1122 DOI: 10.1080/17470210802618900