About ‘Catch that Word’ for July 2020

Author Wendy Ross
Author Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau

Catch that word: interactivity, serendipity and verbal fluency in a word production task


Problem solving outside of the cognitive psychologist’s lab unfolds in an environment rich with bodily gesture and material artefacts. We examine this meshwork of internal mental resources, embodied actions and environmental affordances through the lens of a word production task with letter tiles. Forty participants took part in the study which contrasted performance in a high interactivity condition (where participants were able to move letter tiles at will), a low interactivity condition (where movements were restrained) and a shuffle condition (where participants could not move the tiles but were allowed to randomly rearrange the array). Participants were also video recorded to facilitate coding of behaviour. While aggregate performance measures revealed a marginal impact of interactivity on performance, when the participants’ behaviour was taken into account, interactivity had a consistent and statistically significant beneficial effect. Detailed, exploratory examination of a subsample of participants informed the formulation of additional hypotheses tested across the full sample: the luckiness of the shuffle in that condition significantly predicted the number of words produced and a more efficient strategy was significantly easier to enact in the high interactivity condition. Additionally, two detailed case studies revealed several moments when accidental changes to the letter tile array offered unplanned words reflecting a serendipitous coagency as well as many moments when environmental chance was ignored. These data and observations indicate that interactivity, serendipity, and internal cognitive resources determine problem-solving performance in this task.

Questions for Twitter

  • In the article you focus on the influence of a ‘dynamic and malleable external environment’ on problem-solving – interactivity with the letter blocks led to more words being found, in the experiment. Outside of this experiment, do you think the environment itself has to be dynamic as well as malleable to generate more serendipity, or do you think malleable is enough?
    • That is, is it the agency of the person who manipulates the environment that counts the most, or the manipulation itself?
    • And, what if an environment is inherently dynamic, would that lead to more serendipity? Why so?
  • Do you think that your participant who played a lot with the tiles was picking up on random outcomes, or were they using ‘trial and error’ as a method? (ie what kind of strategy is shuffling?)
    • I think this has something to do with how we think about cognitive effort…you mention that often as a factor that makes people more or less inclined to take advantage of opportunities to manipulate their environmental…how do we measure this; is it something we feel?
    • Why do you think so many people in other studies haven’t ‘considered it worth using their hands to structure their thoughts’? is this something we learn, or something we come by naturally, and do you think most people tend to think with their hands or only some?
  • I’d like to talk about the serendipity in the ‘left-over words’ – so much of what is unanticipated can be easily discarded as though it were an error or a mistake, and it is when they are not discarded (like Fleming and the petri dish) that serendipity happens. One word’s trash is another’s serendipity…what if we are hoarders, like we talked about in #serendipityreads with Sanda and Stephann a couple months ago, and nothing is trash? Is nothing unexpected?

Citation & Links:

Ross, W., Vallée-Tourangeau, F. Catch that word: interactivity, serendipity and verbal fluency in a word production task. Psychological Research (2020). Open Access https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01279-y

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