The Roles of Automatic and Strategic Processing in Sensitivity to Superordinate and Property Frequency

Lawrence W. Barsalou, Brian H. Ross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Four experiments examined people's ability to estimate frequency for two kinds of nonpresented information automatically activated by presented items. In Experiment 1, people were sensitive to how many presented items belonged to the same superordinate category (superordinate frequency), although people were not sensitive to how many items shared the same context-independent property (property frequency). Experiment 2, using an incidental learning task, showed that sensitivity to superordinate frequency does not result from strategically preparing for free recall. Experiment 3 demonstrated, first, that conflicting strategic processing reduces but does not eliminate sensitivity to superordinate frequency, and second, that appropriate strategic processing enables sensitivity to property frequency. Experiment 4 demonstrated that experimental training can make strategic processing unnecessary for sensitivity to property frequency and suggested that automatic processing only results in frequency sensitivity for nonpresented information whose well-established representations are of a certain type. Taken together these experiments show that strategic processing is not necessary for sensitivity to the frequency of nonpresented information-activating a certain kind of well-established representation can automatically result in sensitivity. However, strategic processing can affect sensitivity in two ways: Sensitivity is reduced when strategic processing conflicts with well-established representations; and sensitivity becomes possible in the absence of well-established representations when appropriate strategic processing is used.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)116-134
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1986

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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