What is... psychology series

What is… Psychological Effects on Reading

graphic of a head with cogs turning inside

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term isn’t so much a term as a category. We’re going to look at psychological effects that impact the process of reading.

Missing Letter Effect

If someone is asked to identify each occurrence of a particular letter in a string of letters or words, people are more likely to not notice and skip over a letter when it appears as part of a common word. They’re less likely to skip over letters that are presented in a random string. The same occurs if they’re evaluated reading backwards.

Short joining words like “and,” “of,” and “the” are where letters most often get missed. Letters in functional words that hold a sentence together are more likely to be missed than letters in words that provide the content of the sentence, like nouns and verbs.

Name-Letter Effect

The name-letter effect involves a subconscious preference for letters of the alphabet that are in our names. This occurs with both given name and surname, and while it’s most prominent the initials, it also occurs with the other letters.

People even tend to prefer brands that involve their initials, and they’re more likely to contribute to disaster relief for a hurricane matching one of their initials.

Various ideas have been proposed for why this occurs. It appears to be self-referential rather than a matter of being exposed to the letters more often. One suggestion that’s been made is the mere-ownership effect; this is a type of cognitive bias whereby people like something more simply because it’s theirs. Implicit self-esteem has also been proposed as being responsible for this effect.

This effect was first identified in 1985, and has been replicated in multiple studies across multiple languages.

Word Frequency Effect

This probably isn’t surprising, but we read familiar, frequently used words more quickly than we do words that we see less often. Research has identified the word frequency effect both in languages that use alphabets and Chinese languages that do not.

Recognition is also influenced by the leading letter effect. When we see the first letter of a word, we make a mental prediction of what’s to come. If that prediction appears to be correct, we’re more likely to skip ahead to the next word.

Word Superiority Effect

We read most efficiently when letters are chunked together in words, and when words are chunked together in sentences. We’re substantially slower reading strings of unconnected words.

This particular effect has been known of since it was first described in 1886. Several memory-related factors may contribute to it, including the pronounceability and meaningfulness of actual words, frequency of exposure, and whether words are spelled the way they sound.

Language Production Errors

There are several kinds of common language production errors, which can turn up in spoken or written language. These include substituting unrelated words, blending two words with the same meaning into one word, and mixing up the start and ending of the two words.

I hunted around for a bit, but I couldn’t find anything about my odd tendency to repeat the same word (or pair of words) twice in a row at points where my brain pauses to think.

What I find really interesting is how all of this happens without us necessarily being aware of it. Do I like Apple because my initials are A.P.? I’d be inclined to say no, but maybe I’m a lot less aware of what’s going on in my brain than I think I am.


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find the rest of the what is… series here, and a listing of psychological tests here.

25 thoughts on “What is… Psychological Effects on Reading”

  1. I didn’t know most of this!

    I actually thought for a moment that this would be on the psychological effects OF reading i.e. that there seems to be a correlation between reading fiction and developing empathy, but the causation is unclear.

  2. This is so interesting, and reminds me of my days as a reading teacher. With kids who’d “guess” at the word (and guess wrong) without reading the whole word, we’d use nonsense sentences while keeping standard spelling patterns intact. This would force the kid to read the whole word. Like…

    The fleachers on the grable were trook and flitty.

    So, like, all of those pretend words could be real words, meaning we didn’t just reinvent spelling patterns, which would cause undue confusion.

    And oh yeah, there’s a brand of purse with MK, oh my gosh!! I love it! I don’t use purses, so I don’t have one, but it makes me feel special to see photos of it!!

  3. This reminds me of when I was teaching. Students chose their own seats in a couple of my classes, and I noticed that I had a table of students whose names all started with the letter A and had three syllables. At another table, their names were all two syllables. I can’t remember all of the commonalities now, but there were more.

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