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The Photograph Superiority Effect: Investigating the role of stimulus format and distinctiveness in recognition

Adams, Jamie


Jamie Adams


Helen Williams


Stimuli presented as pictures are recognised better than those presented as words (Paivio, Rogers, & Smythe, 1968; Shepard, 1967). Numerous theoretical accounts have been proposed to explain this robust Picture Superiority Effect (PSE), though inconsistent evidence has made it difficult for researchers to agree on any one explanation (Mintzer & Snodgrass, 1999; D. L. Nelson, Reed, & Walling, 1976; Paivio, 1971). These inconsistencies are likely attributable to methodological differences and a lack of specificity across studies (Koen & Yonelinas, 2014; Migo, Mayes, & Montaldi, 2012; Schoemaker, Gauthier, & Pruessner, 2014), with various stimulus formats being used to represent a “picture” (e.g. line drawings / shaded illustrations / photographs) and a range of available response options when categorising recognition memory judgements. This thesis reports six experiments in which stimulus format and response option condition were systematically examined in an effort to characterise the relative contribution of different types of picture on successful recognition.

Standard PSE response patterns were initially established using words and greyscale drawings in a modified RK paradigm (Experiment 1), before a new set of photograph object stimuli were curated in order to depict the same concepts across numerous formats (Experiment 2). Subsequent recognition experiments were the first to identify a Photograph Superiority Effect (PhSE), whereby photographs produced significantly better recognition than drawings and words (Experiment 3). This effect emerged in both greyscale and colour stimuli, though colour information in itself did not further enhance performance (Experiment 4). The PhSE was robust to further methodological manipulations, such as increasing the distinctiveness of word stimuli (Experiment 5) and providing written-word labels alongside photographs (Experiment 6). Findings are discussed in relation to two major accounts of picture superiority: perceptual distinctiveness (Mintzer & Snodgrass, 1999; D. L. Nelson et al., 1976) and Dual-coding Theory (Paivio, 1971).


Adams, J. (2022). The Photograph Superiority Effect: Investigating the role of stimulus format and distinctiveness in recognition. (Thesis). Keele University

Thesis Type Thesis
Additional Information Embargo on access until 7 July 2025 - The thesis is due for publication, or the author is actively seeking to publish this material.
Award Date 2022-07

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