Semantic and Associative Relations in Adolescents and Young Adults: Examining a Tenuous Dichotomy
The Adolescent Brain: Learning, Reasoning, and Decision Making
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The constructs of semantic and associative relatedness have played a prominent role in research on semantic memory because researchers have historically drawn on the distinction between these two types of relations when formulating theories, creating experimental conditions, and explaining empirical results. We argue that the binary distinction between semantics and association is rooted in a fundamental problem in how the two are defined and contrasted. Whereas semantic relatedness has typically been limited to category coordinates, associative relatedness has most often been operationalized using the word association task. We show that meaningful semantic relations between words/concepts certainly extend beyond category coordinates, that word association is driven primarily by meaningful semantic relations between cue and response words, and that non-meaningful, purely associative relations between words generally are not retained in memory. To illustrate these points, we discuss research on semantic priming, picture naming, and the Deese-Roediger-McDermott false memory paradigm. Furthermore, we describe how research on the development of mnemonic skills in adolescents supports our view. That is, adolescents do not learn arbitrary associations between words, but develop elaborative strategies for linking words by drawing on their rich knowledge of events and situations. In other words, adolescents use existing memories of meaningful relations to ground their memories for novel word pairs, even in an associative learning paradigm.