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23-09-2019 | Original Article

Spatial text processing: are estimates of time and distance influenced by the age of characters and readers?

Psychological Research
Francesca Pazzaglia, Tina Iachini, Chiara Meneghetti
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It is widely accepted that, while hearing or reading a story, people continuously form and update mental representations of the characters, places and events being described, based on plausible spatial, temporal or intentional details. According to the embodied cognition approach, the mental representations that accompany text reading are grounded in each reader’s own sensorimotor experiences. Two experiments were conducted to examine whether readers’ estimates of time and distance are influenced by age, their own and that of the character being described. In Experiment 1, 182 young adults read the description of a route in a town being covered by a young or an elderly character. In Experiment 2, the same descriptions as in Experiment 1 were read by 121 young adults and 53 older people. To avoid a possible confound, a follow-up to Experiment 1 (Experiment 1a) repeated the study by removing from texts the adverbs describing the walking speed of characters. In all experiments, participants were asked to estimate: (a) the time the characters took to reach their destinations (time estimation task); and (b) the distance they covered (distance estimation task). The results showed that both characters’ and readers’ ages influenced the time estimated, whereas no effects were found on estimates of distance: the elderly character was estimated to take longer than the young character (Experiments 1, 1a and 2), and older readers estimated longer times than younger readers (Experiment 2). This prompts the conclusion that personal features of both the readers and the characters they read about were used to infer the temporal dimension of situations described in the narratives. The theoretical implications of the findings are discussed.

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