Recognition and Recall of Words With a Single Meaning

Table of Contents


The experiment “Recognition and recall of words with a single meaning” was conducted by Paul Muter (1984) to verify the generation-recognition theory. Muter hypothesized that when a word has a non-unique meaning, subjects would have the usual pattern of recognition failure. However, when a word has a unique meaning, the subjects would be immune to the usual pattern of recognition failure, as predicted by the generation-recognition theory. He was of the opinion that there was a significant doubt whether single-meaning words in a dictionary would be represented by a single node. So instead of using words from the dictionary, he preferred to use surnames to carry out the experiment.


Twenty-Four student volunteers participated in the experiment. Muter used ninety-six common and unique names for the experiment. Of the ninety-six names, 24 were common target names and 24 were unique target names. The remaining 48 names were lures, of them 24 were common lures and 24 were unique lures. The criteria for selecting the names were as follows: For the 24 unique targets, names were selected from the Random House Dictionary. Nine of these 24 names appeared even once in the Toronto telephone directory. For 24 common targets, names were selected from the random house Dictionary and were sufficiently common to take up at least half a column in the Toronto telephone directory. Each one of these 48 famous people had achieved their fame before 1950.

For the lures, 24 unique names were taken from the Toronto telephone directory and appeared exactly once in the directory. The 24 common lures took up at least half a column in the Toronto telephone directory. None of the lures were listed in the Random House Dictionary.

Muter conducted two experiments, a recognition test and a recall test. For the recognition test, the subjects were given a test sheet containing all the 96 words and asked to circle the names that they recognize. For the recall test, the subjects were given cues for all the 48 target names and asked to write the names of the person whom the cue identified.

Results and Discussion

The experiment found a substantial recognition failure of recallable words for common famous names and virtually no recognition failure of recallable words for unique famous names. In the unique condition there were only two instances where a subject recalled but failed to recognize a famous name. In the common condition, the overall recognition rate of recallable names was higher and substantial. The false-alarm rate was 5.4% for unique lures and 14.9 % for common lures.

Based on these results, Muter concludes that the experiment corroborates the generation recognition theory. According to the theory, for a common name, it is possible that a non-famous node will be accessed at the time of recognition test and famous node will be accessed at the time of the recall test, leading to recognition failure of recallable words. However, since in the case of unique names, there is only one node in the memory, if this node has been successfully accessed there would be no failure in recognition.


The experiment took into account most of the aspects which lead to recognition and recall failure. It also explains all the possible reasons for deviations from the expected results. Based on extremely low failure to recognize recallable words, Muter concludes that the experiment collaborates the generation-recognition theory. Muter also gives an alternative interpretation in terms of “the amount overlap between encoded features in the retrieval cue and the encoded features in the memory trace.” Although this alternative explanation makes sense, it deviates from the topic of single-node recognition and creates confusion as to the result of the experiment. The author should have left the alternative explanation to future researchers. Also the alternative explanation is not properly substantiated by the experiment. This explanation is more of a theory rather than the result of the experiment.

The author has carried out a comprehensive study taking care to include a number of unique and common names of both famous and non-famous names. However, the recall test poses a small problem. Some of the cues given to help subjects recall the famous people are too abstract and may have resulted in failure to recall famous people. On the other hand, doing the recognition test immediately before the recall test would have primed up some of the subjects to recall the famous names. A gap of a few days between the recognition test and recall test would have been better able to predict a subject’s ability to recognize recallable words.

Overall, the experiment was a success and goes a long way in explaining the workings of human memory and our ability to recognize certain words and things and not recognize others. It helps us understand certain memory-related aspects of our behavior and how we learn and remember things. It also helps explain why some things tend to remain in memory while other we tend to forget. It is obvious from the experiment that when something is unique and different, it is easier to be remembered than those things which are common and routine.


Muter, P. (1984). Recognition and recall of words with a single meaning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 10(2), 198-202.