Updating situation models during narrative comprehension

Daniel G. Morrow, Gordon H. Bower, Steven L. Greenspan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The present study examines whether readers of narratives focus on information relevant to the protagonist's perspective even when this information is implied rather than explicitly stated in the narrative. It also examines whether the protagonist's perspective is associated with this character's mental as well as physical location. We investigated these issues by conducting experiments in which subjects memorized a building layout and then read narratives that described a protagonist moving through the building while following a plan. Accessibility of object locations during reading was probed by interrupting the narrative and presenting the names of two objects from the building. Subjects indicated whether the objects were from the same room or from different rooms of the building. Experiment 1 investigated accessibility immediately after sentences that described the character moving from one room into another via a known but unmentioned path room. Readers answered questions about objects at the protagonist's current location (the goal room) more quickly than questions about objects in other rooms. Importantly, objects in the unmentioned path room were more accessible than those in mentioned but less relevant rooms. This finding shows that readers focus on information that is relevant to the protagonist by implication even if it is not mentioned. Experiments 2 and 3 show that the inferencing found in the first experiment depended more on the situational relevance of the implicit information than on other properties of the narratives or on the probe task. Experiment 2 also showed that the protagonist's location was less accessible than another location that the protagonist was thinking about. Thus, readers focused on the protagonist's "mental location" more than the physical location. Experiment 3 showed that the location room remained accessible so long as it was relevant to the protagonist's actions. Thus, the dynamics of accessibility during comprehension reflects the relevance of information to the current actions of the protagonist.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)292-312
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1989
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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