2011. Vol.2, No.7, 713-720
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.27109
The Processing of Pictures and Written Words: A Perceptual and
Conceptual Perspective
Paul Miller
Department of Education University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel.
Received May 22nd, 2011; revised July 19th, 2011; accepted August 22nd, 2011.
The present study examines similarities and differences in the processing of drawings and their corresponding
names. For this purpose, students were asked to determine as fast as possible the identicalness of two pictures as
opposed to the identicalness of their written Hebrew names. Twenty-eight Hebrew native speakers from the fifth
grade participated in the experiment. Findings suggest that the human information processing system optimizes
the processing of information (words, drawings, etc.) according to specific task requirements or task constraints.
Stimulus type per se does not seem to determine the depth of its processing, nor does it seem to directly trigger
particular modalities of encoding (perceptual, linguistic, semantic). Finally, the findings warrant the conclusion
that superiority effects related to the processing of written words and pictorial stimuli reflect artifacts of task re-
quirements rather than inherent characteristics of stimuli.
Keywords: Coding, W ords, Pictures
Questions regarding the processing of written words as op-
posed to pictorial stimuli have been the impetus of a vivid line
of research for more than a century. Findings from such en-
deavors have revealed substantial differences in the processing
of these two stimulus types and have become the basis for an
improved understanding of the human information processing
system, an understanding that has been conceptualized in in-
creasingly sophisticated theoretical models. One of these mod-
els is the Dual Coding Theory of Paivio (1986, 1991), which
assumes that, to proc ess pictures and written words, individuals
code them in two essentially different ways—one attuned to
their imagery features and the other to their verbal properties.
The present study examines similarities and differences in the
processing of schematic drawings and their corresponding
names to further validate the hypothesized characteristics of
such a dual coding theory, as well as to elucidate its constraints.
A frequent approach to clarifying differences in the process-
ing of pictures and written words has focused on memory per-
formance. Findings overwhelmingly suggest that retention is
notably better for pictures than for words (McBride & Dosher,
2002; Paivio & Csapo, 1973; Weldon & Coyote, 1996; Weldon
& Roediger, 1987; Wippich, Melzer, & Mecklenbrauker, 1998).
According to Paivio (1986, 1991, 1995), such increased mem-
ory performance reflects the fact that, upon their encounter,
pictures elicit both a verbal code and an image code, whereas
for written words, processing confines itself to verbal coding.
However, this conclusion seems problematic when taken in a
strict sense, given that turning individuals’ attention to semantic
aspects of the to-be recalled pictures and words (rating their
pleasantness) during encoding was found to eliminate the pic-
ture superiority effects (Paivio, 1975). Such evidence seems to
suggest that picture superiority effects observed in recall ex-
periments are triggered by task requirements at the stage of
stimulus encoding that determine depth of processing.
Another explanation proposed in the literature argues that
picture superiority effects reflect variance in the degree of per-
ceptual distinctiveness of pictures and words. According to this
line of thinking, because pictures are more distinct from each
other, they become encoded in more detail, which facilitates
their future recall (Nelson, 1979). Indeed, experimentally ma-
nipulating the perceptual distinctiveness of pictures was found
to have a significant impact upon the occurrence of picture
superiority effects (Nelson, Reed, & Walling, 1976). In other
words, keeping the similarity between pictures low significantly
increased their recall relative to words, whereas increasing
similarity between pictures resulted in the disappearance of the
picture superiority effects.
A more recent approach to explaining picture superiority ef-
fects in recall has been proposed in the form of a trans-
fer-appropriate processing theory (TAP) (McBride & Dosher,
2002; Weldon & Roediger, 1987). According to this approach,
picture superiority effects are rooted in peculiarities related to
the initial encoding of the stimulus in conjunction with peculi-
arities related to the future retrieval of the same stimulus. In
other words, the processing of particular properties of a stimu-
lus at study (during encoding) should benefit its future retrieval
only if these encoded properties are relevant for task perform-
ance (McBride & Dosher, 2002). Given this to be true, it should
not be surprising that pictures—which at the moment of en-
counter are assumed to trigger their meanings—show increased
recall/recognition rates in comparison to words, for which pro-
cessing is likely to stop before their semantics become fully
activated (Potter, Kroll, Yachzel, Carpenter, & Shermann,
The above explanations of the picture superiority effects in
recall all postulate essential differences between pictures and
words during encoding. Hence, their credibility depends on
whether such differences can be demonstrated, and what their
nature is. During the last three decades, questions regarding the
way pictures as opposed to words become encoded at encounter
have stimulated extensive research employing varied experi-
mental paradigms. Such endeavors have pinpointed notable
differences between the processing of these two stimulus types.
For example, it has been shown that words are named faster
than pictures (Lloyd-Jones & Humphreys, 1997), but when
individuals are asked to categorize these two stimulus types, the
opposite was the case (Job, Rumiati, & Lotto, 1992).
A possible explanation for this inconsistent processing pat-
tern is that, to name a picture, its phonology (name) has to be
retrieved via its meaning, whereas to name a word, its lexical or
even sublexical processing may be sufficient (McCann & Bes-
ner, 1987), without the need to activate its semantics. On the
other hand, in order to categorize both pictures and words, the
activation of their semantic representations (meaning) is neces-
sary. Pictures seem to trigger their meaning in a straightforward
manner. In contrast, the retrieval of the semantics of words—
necessary for their categorization—is hypothesized to be less
direct, mediated by linguistic (phonological/ortho graphic) know-
ledge that, in a initial step, must be retrieved from permanent
memory (Jackson & Coltheart, 2001). If these assumptions are
true, the asymmetric processing pattern found for these two
stimulus types makes sense.
However, findings from a more recent experiment designed
to track differences in the processing of pictures and words
challenges the assumption that the naming of pictures involves
two consecutive processing phases (Job & Tenconi, 2002). In
this experiment, the researcher used a paradigm with an ordi-
nary naming condition and a combined categorization/naming
condition. In the latter condition, participants were instructed to
name the stimulus only when it belonged to a predetermined
category. As expected, naming-onset latencies were signifi-
cantly shorter for the ordinary condition than for the combined
categorization/naming condition. This is in line with the as-
sumption that ordinary word naming does not involve retrieval
of word meaning. Interestingly, however, the naming of pic-
tures in the combined categorization/naming condition was not
found to produce longer naming-onset latencies than naming
pictures in the ordinary condition. Such a zero cost was rather
unexpected. It suggests that the name of a picture is retrieved as
a part of accessing its meaning, rather than subsequent to it.
The findings from the Job and Tenconi study (2002) suggest
that drawing referential connections from written words to
meaning may not be integrated into the process underlying the
naming of words. It appears that the activation of inferential
connections in this direction has a tandem rather than a simul-
taneous nature. On the other hand, establishing referential con-
nections from meaning to linguistic entries seems to be an in-
herent component of the process by which individuals access
the meaning of pictures. In Paivio’s (1986) terms, pictures, at
their encounter, naturally elicit a dual code (their meaning and
name), while the encoding of words may be restricted to the
retrieval of their linguistic properties (phonological/orthogra-
phic knowledge), without spontaneously accessing their mean-
The present study was conducted to extend knowledge re-
garding differences in the encoding and processing of words as
opposed to pictorial stimuli (drawings). The focus of the study
was on the further clarification of two specific questions. Firstly,
is the linguistic encoding (e.g., naming) of words, but in par-
ticular that of pictorial stimuli, an automatic reaction to their
initial encounter? It may be, for example, that the processing of
pictures leads to dual coding only in instances where individu-
als process such stimuli with the intention of naming them (as
was the case in Job & Tenconi, 2002). To economize their
processing resources, individuals may skip the retrieval of this
information in instances where naming is not an explicit task
requirement. Secondly, do differences in the processing of
words and pictures depend upon the depth of the required proc-
To answer these questions, a research paradigm derived from
the Posner procedure (see Posner & Mitchell, 1967) was de-
veloped. The paradigm asked participants to make rapid identi-
calness judgments (same/different) for the items comprising a
series of stimulus pairs. The items used to building the stimulus
pairs were either drawings or the written names of these draw-
The paradigm manipulated two basic processing dimensions.
The first dimension was aimed at determining the minimal level
(depth) of processing required to make an identicalness deci-
sion for the stimuli. The manipulation of this dimension re-
sulted in two distinct experimental conditions. In the first of
these conditions (PI), the identicalness of the two items in a
stimulus pair was physical (displayed exactly the same word or
drawing twice). To make an identicalness decision in this con-
dition, processing the perceptual properties of the stimuli
should be sufficient (see also Posner & Mitchell, 1967). In the
second condition (NI), the identicalness of the two items in a
stimulus pair was merely a name identity—two words or draw-
ings that, though physically distinct, evoke the same name (e.g.,
DOG/dog; drawings of two physically dissimilar dogs). To
make an identicalness decision in this condition, the items of a
stimulus pair must be processed beyond the perceptual level.
Indeed, previous research has shown that making identicalness
judgments for real words presented under the NI condition is
notably faster than for homophonic pseudo-words (Miller,
2005). This suggests that, to make such identicalness judgments,
individuals process letter strings down to their lexical represen-
The second processing dimension manipulated by the para-
digm was the syllabic length of the names of the processed
stimuli. The manipulation of this dimension also created two
distinct experimental conditions. In the first condition, the
names of the items in stimulus pairs were monosyllabic; in the
second condition, they were bisyllabic. Given that determining
the identicalness of two name-only identical items is mediated
by their phonological representations, the syllabic length of the
item names should impact the speed of their processing.
The final design of the study was 2 (stimulus type—drawings
vs. written words) × 2 (identicalness type—physical vs. name)
× 2 (syllabic length—monosyllabic vs. bisyllabic).
Research Hypotheses
Hypothesis 1: participants will process the identicalness of
stimulus pairs (words and drawings) in the NI condition notably
slower than the identicalness of stimulus pairs in the PI condi-
tion. As argued earlier, in the NI condition, determining the
identicalness of two items requires retrieval of knowledge from
long-term memory (LTM) to bridge the visual incongruity be-
tween the two words at the perceptual level—a time-consuming
process, whereas in the PI condition, such a decision is possible
based solely upon the perceptual properties of the items com-
prising the stimulus pairs.
Hypothesis 2: participants will elicit a different processing
profile in determining the identicalness of words as opposed to
the identicalness of drawings, but only in the NI condition,
where determining between-stimuli identicalness requires pro-
cessing the items beyond a perceptional level. Specifically,
processing the identicalness of two words in the NI condition
(e.g., DOG/dog) will be significantly faster than processing the
identicalness of two drawings. This is because determining the
identicalness of written words becomes possible by the mere
comparison of their verbal properties, without referencing their
meaning (McCann & Besner, 1987; see also Jackson &
Coltheart, 2001). In contrast, determining the identicalness of
two perceptually different drawings of a particular item (e.g.,
drawings of two physically dissimilar dogs) requires their
processing down to the semantic level (Job, Rumiati, & Lotto,
1992; Job & Tenconi, 2002).
stimulus pair are the same or different. The stimulus pairs of
each condition were randomly distributed within 40 rectangular
fields, arranged in five rows on an A3 sheet (see Appendix A).
In half of the fields, the items in a pair were the same; in the
other half, the items were different. Participants were asked to
mark, as fast as possible, a in fields with two identical items
and an for pairs of two distinct items. For each experimental
condition, a practice sheet with some additional stimulus pairs
served for task explanation and practice.
Hypothesis 3: determining the identicalness of two written
words in the NI condition will be biased by variance in their
syllabic length. Specifically, in the NI condition, determining
the identicalness of two monosyllabic words will be faster than
determining the identicalness of two bisyllabic words. A similar
speed of processing difference was predicted between drawings
with monosyllabic and bisyllabic names, given that, in the
course of processing their identicalness, their linguistic proper-
ties become automatically revealed (Job & Tenconi, 2002). If,
however, retrieving their names is restricted to instances where
it is explicitly required (i.e., asking participants to determine
whether two drawings rhyme), processing the identicalness of
drawings in the present study should prove insensitive to syl-
labic length.
Figure 1 illustrates all eight conditions. In four of the eight
experimental conditions (hereafter “word conditions”), stimulus
pairs were built from written Hebrew nouns representing fa-
miliar items. The other four conditions (hereafter “drawing
conditions”) were an exact replication of the four word condi-
tions, except that drawings were used to build the stimulus pairs.
The following description of the principles underlying the crea-
tion of the different experimental conditions is provided only
for the four word conditions. The very same principles, how-
ever, are applicable also to the drawing conditions of the ex-
Method In two of the word conditions, the two items comprising an
identical stimulus pair were physically identical (PI). In the
other two word conditions, the two items in an identical stimu-
lus pair were merely name identical (NI). In one of the PI word
conditions and one of the NI word conditions, all the items used
to build the stimulus pairs had monosyllabic names; in the re-
maining two word conditions, they all had bisyllabic names. As
a result, processing the items in the monosyllabic word condi-
tions verbally (phonologically) required the processing of 80
syllables per experimental sheet, whereas the number of sylla-
bles to be processed in the bisyllabic word conditions was twice
this amount.
Twenty-eight students randomly sampled from two 5th grade
classes in a public school in northern Israel participated in the
experiment. For all, Hebrew was their mother tongue. They all
had proper hearing and intact or corrected-to-normal vision,
and none were diagnosed as having a learning disability. Ac-
cording to their teachers, they all had average or higher reading
comprehension skills.
Design and Stimuli Twenty Hebrew words (nouns) were used to prepare the
stimulus pairs of the four word conditions of the experiment.
All were concrete high-frequency words (see Appendix B,
Stimuli Transcription). They were all written as trigrams in
The study comprised eight experimental conditions, each
comprised of 40 stimulus pairs. In each condition, the task was
to determine whether the two items comprising a particular
Figure 1.
Illustration of the eight experimental conditions. aThe drawing pairs are presented in a size that is somewhat reduced relative to their appearance on
the test sheets.
unpointed Hebrew.1 Half were monosyllabic words and the
remainder bisyllabic words. They all represented objects that
could be converted into simple schematic drawings so as to
create the four drawing conditions of the experiment.
Preparation of the word pairs involved several steps. First,
ten identical and ten non-identical word pairs were created from
the ten items of the monosyllabic word pool. Second, the 20
monosyllabic word pairs were duplicated, making a total of 40
monosyllabic word pairs—half of them comprised of the same
word twice and the other half of two different words. The same
procedure was also applied to the items of the bisyllabic word
pool. Third, in each condition (PI and NI), both for monosyl-
labic and bisyllabic words, half of the pairs built from two
identical words and half of the pairs built from two different
words were presented in print; the other half were presented in
a cursive typescript (see Figure 1 and Appendix B). The reason
for using two typescripts in the PI condition, as in the NI condi-
tion, was to equate typescript-related word processing differ-
ences (see, e.g., Corcoran & Rouse, 1970; De Zuniga, Hum-
phreys, & Evett, 1991). Finally, each of the four word pair sets
(identical print; non-identical print; identical cursive; non-iden-
tical cursive) was randomly distributed within the 40 fields of a
test sheet, each test sheet representing a specific word condition
(e.g., Appendix A—test sheet of PI condition for monosyllabic
The four drawing conditions of the experiment were prepared
as an exact copy of the four word conditions, with each word
being replaced by a simple schematic drawing denoting the
same concept as the word. To allow for the creation of the NI
drawing conditions, two drawings were produced for each noun.
These drawings—though they represented the same concept—
were visually distinct from each other (see examples in Appen-
dix B). The recognizability of all drawings was determined by
three independent judges. Only drawings rapidly and correctly
identified by all three judges were used for the preparation of
the stimulus pairs in the four drawing conditions.
To explain and practice the task requirements in word and
drawing conditions, four practice sheets were prepared, one for
each identicalness condition (PI or NI) of each stimulus type
(words or drawings). To ascertain the unequivocal recognition
of the drawings by the participants, the words and drawings
used to create the stimulus pairs (as well as those used for task
explanation) were copied to flashcards. Prior to experimenta-
tion, the participants were asked to match those flashcards rep-
resenting the same concept.
Participants were tested individually. The experiment was
conducted in a quiet room, with the participants sitting in front
of a table and the experimenter (a paid graduate student) sitting
to their right, slightly to the back to be out of the range of vi-
sion during experimentation.
Drawing verification. The experimenter informed the par-
ticipants that they would first have to sort flashcards, with
flashcards representing the same object being put into one pile.
The experimenter provided an example using a flashcard set
prepared for practice. The participants’ proper understanding
was then assessed by letting them sort the practice set (mixed
Before asking the participants to sort the flashcards contain-
ing the items used for experimentation, the experimenter in-
formed them that this was not a test and that performance time
would not be taken. The experimenter also told participants that
he would correct them in case they erred. None of the partici-
pants demonstrated difficulty in understanding the task re-
quirements. In fact, none made sorting errors that they did not
immediately recognize and correct.
Execution of experiment. The participants received test sheets
of the four word and four drawing conditions in alternate order,
with drawing sheets of opposite syllabic value following word
sheets and vice versa (for example, Participant 1 received the
monosyllabic PI word condition followed by the bisyllabic PI
drawing condition, whereas Participant 2 received the bisyllabic
PI drawing condition followed by the monosyllabic PI word
condition). To counterbalance practice and fatigue effects, the
administration order of the eight test conditions (test sheets)
was further rotated in a two-step pace. Performance time (in
seconds) and accuracy measures for each experimental sheet
were recorded.
Each participant marked the eight experimental sheets in one
sequence, according to a specific rotation order. The experi-
menter first placed a practice sheet with two rows of stimulus
pairs corresponding to a specific experimental condition in
front of the participants. He then instructed them to mark fields
containing the same item twice with a and fields containing
two different items with an . The experimenter exemplified
the task by correctly marking the stimulus pairs in the first four
fields of a practice sheet. He then asked the participants to
complete marking the remaining stimulus pairs to ascertain
proper understanding of the task. None of the participants
manifested problems understanding the task requirements.
Following explanation and practice, the experimenter re-
placed the practice sheet with one of the test sheets (according
to rotation order) covered by an blank sheet. He informed par-
ticipants that the test sheet contained five rows of fields with
stimulus (word/drawing) pairs which they would have to mark
as practiced before. The experimenter emphasized that he now
would measure time and therefore it is important to work
quickly. He instructed participants to start indicating the iden-
ticalness of the stimulus pairs from the upper right corner, al-
ways proceeding from right to left,2 field by field, row by row,
until they reach the end. The experimenter further instructed
participants not to make corrections in case they err.
When participants indicated their readiness, the experimenter
instructed them to position the pencil close to the right-upper
corner of the cover sheet and to be ready for marking. He then
removed the cover sheet and activated a stopwatch the moment
the participants marked the first stimulus pair. Time was
stopped when the participants marked the last stimulus pair.
This procedure was replicated until the participants completed
all eight experimental conditions (test sheets).
1Unpointed Hebrew is a mainly consonantal orthography used in school
materials above third grade. Prior to this stage, Israeli children read
ointed Hebrew where small, physically dissociated diacritical marks
(points and dashes)—normally placed below or above a word’s conso-
nantal letter string—indicate vowel information. After second grade,
however, such vowel diacritics are gradually removed from textbooks
and after third grade, reading materials are almost exclusively printed in
unpointed Hebrew orthography (for more information on differences
regarding pointed and unpointed Hebrew, see Shimron, 1993).
Quantitative (time) and qualitative (error) performances un-
der the different experimental conditions was evaluated by
ANOVA, using stimulus type (words, drawings), level of proc-
2Hebrew is read from right to left.
essing (PI, NI), and amount of syllabic information (mo- no-
syllabic, bisyllabic) as within-subject factors. Because the error
rates for all eight experimental conditions were well below one
percent, only findings referring to processing time are reported.
Table 1 summarizes processing time means and standard devia-
tions for the four word and the four drawing conditions.
The identicalness of drawings was processed notably faster
than the identicalness of words, F[1,27] = 19.80, p < .001. In-
terestingly, a series of post-hoc analyses using t-tests, con-
ducted to further clarify this drawing superiority effect, indi-
cated that drawings were processed faster under both the PI
condition (monosyllabic drawing pairs vs. monosyllabic word
pairs and bisyllabic drawing pairs vs. bisyllabic word pairs, t[27]
= 3.49, p < .01; t[27]=4.57, p < .001, respectively) and the NI
condition (monosyllabic drawing pairs vs. monosyllabic word
pairs and bisyllabic drawing pairs vs. bisyllabic word pairs, t[27]
= 2.20, p < .05; t[27] = 3.26, p < .01, respectivel y).
A significant main effect, F(1,27) = 157.14, p < .001, was
found for level of processing: processing stimulus pairs was
significantly faster under the PI condition than the NI condition.
As is obvious from Table 1, this PI processing advantage was
characteristic for both words and drawings. The ANOVA failed
to provide evidence that determining the identicalness of
stimulus pairs was notably biased by the syllabic length of the
stimulus (monosyllabic vs. bisyllabic).
A significant interaction, F[1,27] = 6.70, p < .05, between
level of processing and stimulus type indicated that the dis-
crepancy in processing speed between PI and NI conditions was
more marked for drawing pairs than for word pairs (see Table
1). No other significant interactions between the three main
effects were revealed. The fact that the amount of syllabic in-
formation did not interact with stimulus type suggests that
varying the amount of phonological information had no impact
on the processing of either stimulus type.
A series of Pearson product moment correlation analyses
were conducted to clarify the relation between the processing of
word pairs and the processing of drawing pairs. In all, strong
positive correlations in the range of r = .65, p < .001, or higher
were yielded, indicating that the skills underlying the process-
ing of words were also important for the processing of drawings.
Chronbach’s Alpha, representing the paradigm reliability,
computed with execution times of all eight experimental condi-
tions, was 0.96.
Table 1.
Processing time meansa for monosyllabic and bisyllabic Hebrew words
and drawings under PI and NI conditions (standard deviations in pa-
Type of Identicalness
Stimulus Type Syllabic Le ngt h PI NI
Monosyllabic words44.65 (9.90) 51.14 (8.46)
Bisyllabic w ords 44.49 (9.79) 51.61 (9.06)
Hebrew Words
All words 44.57 (9.50) 51.37 (8.57)
drawings 39.72 (8.57) 48.94 (7.73)
Bisyllabic dra wings 38.71 (8.95) 48.00 (8.19)
All drawings 39.22 (8.52) 48.47 (7.75)
Note: aMeasurement s in sec ond s.
The impetus behind this study was to further illuminate dif-
ferences in processing of written words and pictorial stimuli
(drawings), with the aim of providing novel insight into exist-
ing assumptions. The research hypotheses were primarily based
upon the assumption that making a same/different decision
under the PI (physically identical) condition, as opposed to the
NI (name identical) condition, would reveal differences be-
tween words and drawings at two essentially different, yet basic
levels of their processing.
Hypothesis 1 predicted that determining the identicalness of
two stimuli under the NI condition would take significantly
more time than making the very same decision under the PI
condition. This is because processing identicalness in the for-
mer condition requires a deeper processing of the stimulus. This
hypothesis was intended to substantiate the suitability of the
experimental paradigm for distinguishing between different
levels of processing. A very robust level of processing effects
for both words and drawings confirmed the suitability of the
experimental paradigm for tracking possible processing differ-
ences under conditions altering the depth of processing of these
two stimulus types. They also confirmed that the processing of
between-stimuli identicalness under the NI condition requires
accessing some form of knowledge in LTM (see also Miller,
Hypothesis 2 predicted that it would take significantly less
time to determine the identicalness of two words than of two
drawings. This is because verbal processing may be sufficient
to recognize the identicalness of two words, rendering the es-
tablishment of referential connection to their semantics super-
fluous (McCann & Besner, 1987; see also Jackson & Coltheart,
2001), whereas determining the identicalness of two drawings
presumably requires accessing their meaning in a time-con-
suming process (Job, Rumiati, & Lotto, 1992; Job & Tenconi,
2002). This word processing advantage, however, was not as-
sumed to be general, but rather restricted to the NI condition,
where recognizing the identicalness of two items requires their
processing beyond a perceptual level. Determining identical-
ness under the PI condition was not expected to reveal process-
ing differences between words and drawings given that, in this
condition, processing the perceptual information of the stimuli
was sufficient for making a same/d ifferent jud gment.
Hypothesis 2 was not supported. Table 1 shows that partici-
pants consistently processed drawing stimulus pairs signifi-
cantly faster than the same stimulus pairs presented as written
words (Hebrew nouns). This unexpected finding of a drawing
processing superiority seems to imply that, to determine their
identicalness, the processing of the word pairs proceeded be-
yond a verbal level; otherwise, performance should have re-
flected a word processing superiority (see Job & Tenconi,
2002). The finding of a drawing processing superiority in the PI
condition warrants particular attention. It hints at the possibility
that, within the information processing system, the processing
of verbal and pictorial materials already diverges at a very early
processing stage.
Under the NI condition, it should have been possible to de-
termine the identicalness of two words based upon their pho-
nological decoding. In light of the unexpected finding of a
drawing processing advantage at both processing levels, ex-
amination of the participants’ sensitivity to the phonological
manipulation (the use of monosyllabic vs. bisyllabic items) is
of particular interest. Two specific hypotheses were teste d with
relevance to the impact of this manipulation. First, it was pre-
dicted that increasing the number of the syllables composing
the word pairs would decrease the speed of processing their
identicalness under NI conditions (bisyllabic word pairs being
processed significantly slower than monosyllabic word pairs).
Second, it was anticipated that a similar syllabic bias would be
found also for drawings if accessing their meaning involves the
simultaneous retrieval of their linguistic names (Job & Tenconi,
2002). If, however, the retrieval of their names is not intrinsic
to the process underlying the access of their meaning (e.g., Job,
Rumiati, & Lotto, 1992), varying the syllabic length of drawing
names was hypothesized to be irrelevant to the processing of
their identicalness.
Interestingly, varying the syllabic length of the stimuli was
not found to bear on the speed of their processing. This was
true whether such stimuli were processed as words or as draw-
ings and whether determining their identicalness demanded
reliance on some form of knowledge (NI condition) or not (PI
condition). While the absence of a syllabic bias with respect to
drawings is in line with the assumption that such stimuli do not
trigger the retrieval of their names spontaneously (Job, Rumiati,
& Lotto, 1992), the participants’ lack of sensitivity to syllabic
length when determining the identicalness of written words
challenges the widely held view that readers automatically
phonologically decode (name) such stimuli at their encounter
(e.g., Paivio, 1986; see also Share, 1995).
A central assumption of the present study was that process-
ing the stimulus pairs at a perceptual level (PI condition) would
not distinguish between words and drawings. In other words, it
was anticipated that differences in the processing of these two
stimulus types would be restricted to instances where deter-
mining identicalness requires processing to go beyond the per-
ceptual level (in the NI condition). However, as already stated,
drawings were processed faster also under PI conditions. The
fact that this processing superiority was replicated in the two
syllabic conditions strengthens the validity of this finding. Of
interest in this regard is that this processing superiority was
notably larger in the PI condition than the NI condition (see
Table 1), as reinforced by a statistically significant interaction
between level of processing and stimulus type and the absence
of a triple interaction of these effects with syllabic length.
These findings suggest that the way the human information
processing system treats these two stimulus types diverges at
the most basic processing levels.
Integrating the current evidence about the processing of pic-
torial materials and words with previous research (e.g., Job,
Rumiati, & Lotto, 1992; Job & Tenconi, 2002; Lloyd-Jones &
Humphreys, 1997; McBride & Dosher, 2002; Paivio, 1986;
Paivio & Csapo, 1973; Weldon & Roediger, 1987; Weldon &
Coyote, 1996; Wippich, Melzer, & Mecklenbrauker, 1998), one
cannot avoid the conclusion that the processing of information
within the human information processing system is optimally
attuned to the requirements of a particular task. This conclusion
seems particularly sound given that participants in the present
study had notably shorter processing times under the PI condi-
tion. This implies that they must have determined the identi-
calness of stimulus pairs at a much earlier processing level
under that condition, as compared to the NI condition. This
seems to have been the case even though there was nothing to
hinder them from processing the PI condition at a deeper level.
The fact that such augmented processing did not occur implies
that the optimization of processing resources to task require-
ments is automatic, given, of course, that these task require-
ments are sufficiently clear. It also suggests that the assumption
that drawings automatically evoke their meaning (Paivio, 1986)
may not be tenable in its narrow sense.
At first glance, the markedly faster processing of word and
drawing pairs under the PI condition fits neatly with the as-
sumption that, in this condition, determining their identicalness
was based on a mere analysis of their physical (perceptual)
properties. This conclusion, however, ignores two important
findings. First, and in contradiction to Hypothesis 2, the par-
ticipants’ performance in the PI condition reflected a notable
drawing processing superiority. Second, this superiority was
even more marked than it was in the NI condition. One possible
explanation for this counterintuitive performance pattern is that
written words and drawings vary in their perceptual processi-
bility. Given, however, that participants processed exactly the
same words and drawings—although paired differently (see
Appendix B)—in the PI and NI conditions, variance in percep-
tual processibility fails to adequately explain why, of all things,
the drawing processing superiority was found to be more en-
hanced in the PI condition for both monosyllabic and bisyllabic
stimulus pairs (see Table 1). In view of such ambiguity, con-
sideration of further explanations for the drawing processing
superiority in the PI condition is warranted.
As already argued, the finding of a drawing processing supe-
riority in the PI condition suggests that words and drawings are
treated differently from a very early processing stage. Consid-
ering this conclusion seriously gives rise to the possibility that
the processing advantage found for drawings in the PI condition,
as opposed to the NI condition, has different roots. For example,
in the PI condition, this processing advantage may indicate that
participants processed words beyond a perceptual level when
making an identicalness decision, whereas the rapid processing
of drawings suggests that the same decision was based, as hy-
pothesized, on a comparison of their physical properties. Given
this to be true, the drawing processing superiority found in the
PI condition would reflect a propensity of proficient readers—
probably due to long-term habituation—to treat written words
as linguistic rather than visual stimuli (Jackson & Coltheart,
2001). This, of course, is not meant to suggest that participants
identified the words (retrieved their meaning) when judging
their identicalness under the PI condition. Rather, it seems that
they made their identicalness decisions only after processing
the visual information of the word stimuli to some abstract
letter or orthographic knowledge.
As already stated, the rapid processing of drawings under the
PI condition suggests that participants focused on their percep-
tual properties to process identicalness. It thus appears that the
semantic coding of pictorial materials is not an automatic reac-
tion to their perception (Paivio, 1986), but is triggered by par-
ticular task requirements. Determining the identicalness of
drawings in the NI condition—as manifested in notably pro-
longed processing times—created such a requirement. Interest-
ingly, however, in contradiction to a dual coding hypothesis
(Paivio, 1986), there was no evidence that drawings were also
encoded verbally. If there had been, processing drawings with
bisyllabic names would have taken longer than processing
drawings with monosyllabic names. This suggests that both the
semantic and verbal coding of drawings may be restricted to
instances where it is purposeful for task performance.
To determine identicalness in the NI condition, participants
seem to process written words down to a semantic level. Oth-
erwise, the markedly slower processing of word pairs in com-
parison to drawing pairs makes no sense. Although this time
discrepancy is principally in line with findings from other stud-
ies (Job, Rumiati, & Lotto, 1992; Job & Tenconi, 2002;
Lloyd-Jones & Humphreys, 1997) that have compared the
processing of words and pictures under conditions (categoriza-
tion tasks) requiring their semantic processing, the present
finding that words were processed slower than drawings re-
mains puzzling. This is because determining their identicalness
should have been possible based upon their phonological and/or
orthographic representations. Why participants did not use lin-
guistic knowledge to mediate word identicalness (as indicated
partly by the absence of a syllabic effect) in the NI condition is
not sufficiently clear. However, it should be noted that words
were provided in unpointed Hebrew, an orthography in which—
due to substantial vowel omission—the phonological decoding
of words out of context becomes highly unreliable (Shimron,
1993). Moreover, some previous research suggests (e.g., Cor-
coran & Rouse, 1970) that orthographic knowledge for printed
words and handwritten words is represented by different ab-
stractions in LTM. Hence, the possibility that the participants
used neither their phonological nor their orthographic knowl-
edge to mediate the visual incongruity between the stimulus
words in the NI conditions seems plausible, as would their re-
treat to a semantic strategy for this purpose.
In summary, findings from the present study and those re-
ported elsewhere (e.g., Job & Tenconi, 2002; Miller, 2005)
suggest that the human information processing system opti-
mizes the processing of information (words, drawing, etc.)
according to specific task requirements or task constraints.
Stimulus type per se does not seem to determine the depth of its
processing, nor does it seem to directly trigger particular mo-
dalities of encoding (perceptual, linguistic, semantic, etc.).
Rather, what seems to determine these dimensions is the pur-
pose of the processing. Once that purpose is defined, the proc-
essing of information seems to proceed to levels that satisfy the
task requirements. Findings from the present study suggest,
however, that written words may have a unique status in this
regard, in that they are treated by proficient readers as linguistic
rather than as visual information. As a result, their processing
seems to involve their elaboration beyond the perceptual di-
mension in instances where this is not a prerequisite for ade-
quate task performance, and even at the expense of processing
Finally, findings from the present study warrant the conclu-
sion that superiority effects related to the processing of written
words and pictorial stimuli reflect artifacts of task requirements
rather than inherent characteristics of stimuli. This is probably
true whether such effects are observed during the phase of en-
coding or at the stage of their recall.
I am very grateful to my language editor, Helene Hogri, for
her excelle nt job.
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Appendix A: Test Sheet of PI Condition for Monosyllabic Words
aThe format of the experimental sheet is reduced in size (A4 instead of A3 format). bThe ’s and ’s were not indicated on the original experimental sheet, but serve
merely as an i llustrati o n of task re q uirements .
Appendix B: Transcription of Monosyllabic and Bisyllabic Hebrew Words Used and
Their Arrangement into Word Pairsa
aThe word pairs prepared for each condition appeared twice, randomly distributed, within the 40 fields comprising a test sheet. bBoth word stimuli of the pair appear either
in print or in cursive scr ip t. cOne word stimuli of the pair is in print and the other in cursive script.