Psychological Science Faculty Publications and Presentations

Redefining the Congruity Effect in Comparative Judgments: A Review of the Theories and a Further Test

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This article reviews major theories about the congruity effect (CE) in comparative judgments and reports 2 experiments further testing a newly proposed theory. The congruity effect is the phenomenon that in a comparative judgment, when the comparative in the instruction (“choose larger” or “choose smaller”) matches the magnitude of the 2 items being compared (“choose larger” when the two items are large, “choose smaller” when the two items are small), the choice is faster than when they mismatch. For four decades this has been the belief of researchers. A recent study (Jou, Escamilla, Torres, Ortiz, & Salazar, 2018) has shown that the instruction comparative plays no necessary role in generating the congruity effect. Instead, the item closer to the end of a continuum of an attribute tends to be retrieved from memory faster than the item farther from an end regardless of whether there is an instruction. The assumptions of the newly proposed theory, called the serial position–based distinctiveness account, were further tested in this study. The test results were affirmative. They showed that the congruity effect comes from the serial position–based distinctiveness of the items, and thus the decades-old misunderstanding of the role of the instruction in producing the CE is corrected.


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The American Journal of Psychology