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Does the Prototype Theory Explain the Structure of Semantic Memory?

Does the Prototype Theory Explain the Structure of Semantic Memory?

Author’s Note: The following research was conducted on the basis of understanding the effect of Prototypes on semantic memory, which is a term used for the long-term memory store in which conceptual information is represented, including semantic (meaning) and lexical (word) information, as well as facts about the world (Bayles & Kaszniak, 1987; Tulving, 1972). The prototype theory refers to the ‘word meanings, and the conceptual classes that the words name, are distinguished one from another not in terms of an explicit definition, but in terms of similarity to a generic or best example.’ (Hampton, 2006) According to the Prototype Theory, all concepts are organized around a prototype; concepts organized around characteristics, not defining attributes but typicality family resemblance. The purpose of semantic memory is to process and categorize the episodic memory into genres and this is how the prototype theory is able to explain the concept of categorization and the role it plays in semantic memory.  

Typicality Effects Introduction

Encoding, storage and retrieval are the 3 stages of memory processing. According to Reisberg, acquisition is the process of gaining any given information. The memory storage holds the information in the brain until it is required and the retrieval stage refers to retrieving the information from the memory storage. We automatically store information semantically. Semantic memory refers to the part of the long-term memory that processes ideas and concepts that are not derived from personal experiences. Rosch, Simpson and Miller (1976) tested the impact that typicality had on the rate of learning when presented with various stimuli. They conducted three experiments that were similar in design, where they presented prototypical stimuli for the participants to learn. They then presented variations of stimuli that should belong to one of the prototype categories. A semantic network is used when one has knowledge that is best understood as a set of related concepts.

Rosch (1973) defined the term prototype as denoting a stimulus, which takes a salient position in the formation of a category due to the fact that it is the first stimulus to be associated with that category. The prototype model is based on a philosophy of nominalism, in which diagnostic categories represent concepts used by mental health professionals (Blashfield, 1991). Diagnostic groups are not viewed as discrete, but individuals may warrant membership in a category to a greater or lesser degree. The categories are defined by exemplars, or prototypes, and the presentation of features or symptoms in an individual is neither necessary nor sufficient to determine membership in a category. According to Rosch, the typicality effect states that individuals respond more quickly to typical examples of a category than they would to examples that are considered atypical. The sentence verification task is a procedure in which participants are briefly presented with sentences and asked to make judgments about them. This experiment has led to several observations about semantic memory. A study conducted by Kiran and Thompson (2003) consisted of normal young, elderly, Broca’s aphasic, and Wernicke’s aphasic individuals who ‘participated in an online category verification task where primes were superordinate category labels while targets were either typical or atypical examples of animate categories or nonmembers belonging to inanimate categories. The reaction time to judge whether the target belonged to the preceding category label was measured. Results indicated that all four groups made significantly greater errors on atypical examples compared to typical examples.’ The semantic feature comparison model is used “to derive predictions about categorization times in a situation where a subject must rapidly decide whether a test item is a member of a particular target category” (Smith, Shoben, & Rips, 1974).



H1: Recall for prototypical items (red paper) > non prototypical items (blue paper)

H2: Recall for blocked lists (green ink) > random lists (white ink)

H3: There will be a Typicality X Organization interaction


The participants who took part in the study were 311 psychology students. There were 30 male and 134 female participants. The mean age of students who participated was 22.957 and the standard deviation of the age demographic was 4.2606. In regards to ethnic backgrounds, 3.7 percent of participants were Asian/Asian American, 6.1 percent were African American, 14 percent were Caucasian, 74.4 percent were Hispanic or Latino and 1.8 percent of participants made up other ethnic backgrounds. In terms of whether participants spoke native English, 75.6 per cent of participants were native speakers, 21.3 percent were not native but very fluent, 2.4 percent were not native but fluent. These students were not coerced into taking part in the research as they did so voluntarily.


The materials used for the experiment was a Test Booklet, which included various pages that presented the layout and course of the experiment. Each page was dedicated to carrying out a particular task which included: an instruction page – this page explained how the experiment would be conducted; a word presentation page (2) – this page displayed the words that the participants would have to recall later; a rehearsal-prevention task (2) – this page was intended to inhibit the participants from ‘rehearsing’ the words on the ‘word presentation page’; a test page (free recall) (2) – this page is the page where the participants will test their recall ability; and a debriefing sheet – this page provided information about the results of the study and any further steps.

These materials are replicable which means the experiment can be conducted again and can produced replicable results.

Procedure design:

The participants were tested in a quiet setting. Each were given a Test Booklet and were informed of the nature of the experiment. The participants were then asked to read the instructions on the first page, which stated that participants have 2 minutes to study a word list. This was followed by a 1-minute rehearsal prevention task. The participants were then allowed a time limit of 1 minute for the recall task. This was followed by a 2-minute break, after which the experiment was repeated.

The person conducting the experiment will use a stopwatch to accurately record the time for each task, to ensure replicability. After the completion of the experiment, the experimenter will debrief the participants.

Design and Data analysis:

The design of the experiment was a 2×2 mixed factorial ANOVA. In terms of data analysis, the independent variable (1), refers to 2 levels of the typicality of test items. These levels included Prototypical and Non-prototypical. The red paper is prototypical data and the blue paper is non-prototypical. The independent variable (2), refers to 2 levels of the organization of test materials, which included Blocked and Random. The green ink is blocked data and the white ink is classed as random. The purpose of the experiment is to find out the dependent variable, which is the number of correctly recalled words. The independent variable is what determines how many words are correctly recalled.  A t-test was also conducted to examine whether there are significant mean differences in scores in typicality as a result of organization.


A two-way ANOVA was conducted to test the hypotheses that red paper would produce more correct math answers than blue paper. There was a significant difference between red paper and blue paper on the match problems correctly answered, F(1, 162) = xxxx, p < xxx, np2 = .xx. Red paper with green pens had more correct answers to the math problems than red paper with white paper. However, blue paper with green pens produced more correct answers to the math problems than blue paper with white pens. The best condition for correct math answers would be xx and the worse condition would be xxx. X condition produced more or less math answers than xx condition.

A correlated e-test as conducted to test the hypothesis: red paper with green ink would produce more correct math answers than blue paper with white ink. There was a significant difference in produced math between red and green than blue and white. There was a significant difference in produced math problems, t(df) = xxx, p = xx) X-combination were recalled more than x-combination.

For the first hypothesis, the first mean for word recall was 14.166 and the second mean was 14.904. For the second hypothesis, the mean for blocked organization was 15.763 and the mean for random organization was 13.307. And for the third hypothesis, the prototypical and blocked condition is likely to have the most words recalled whereas the non-prototypical and random condition is likely to have the lease words recalled.

Kintsch (1968) conducted an experiment where participants had to learn words from unstructed lists. This was followed by a retention test which involved free recall or recognition task. They found that the structure of results led to higher retention in free recall. However, structure was not relevant in recognition. These results support the assumption that recall involves the retrieval stage which means that an organized list is easier to retrieve than an unorganized list. This relates to the experiment conducted in this paper, because it supports the claim that typicality helps with recall.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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