Learning words in space and time: Probing the mechanisms behind the suspicious-coincidence effect

John P Spencer, Sammy Perone, Linda B Smith, Larissa K Samuelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)


A major debate in the study of word learning centers on the extension of categories to new items. The rational approach assumes that learners make structured inferences about category membership, whereas the mechanistic approach emphasizes the attentional and memory processes that form the basis of generalization behaviors. Recent support for the rational view comes from observations of the suspicious-coincidence effect: People generalize category membership narrowly when presented with three subordinate-level exemplars that share the same label and generalize category membership broadly when presented with one exemplar. Across three experiments, we examined the mechanistic basis of this effect. Results showed that the presentation of multiple subordinate-level exemplars led to narrow generalization only when the exemplars were presented simultaneously, even when the number of exemplars was increased from three to six. These data demonstrate that the suspicious-coincidence effect is firmly grounded in the general cognitive processes of attention, memory, and visual comparison.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1049-1057
Number of pages9
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number8
Early online date24 Jun 2011
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2011


  • Adult
  • Attention
  • Discrimination
  • Generalization
  • Humans
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Verbal Learning
  • Vocabulary

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