Models of retrieval in sentence comprehension: A computational evaluation using Bayesian hierarchical modeling

Research on similarity-based interference has provided extensive evidence that the formation of dependencies between non-adjacent words relies on a cue-based retrieval mechanism. There are two different models that can account for one of the main predictions of interference, i.e., a slowdown at a retrieval site, when several items share a feature associated with a retrieval cue: Lewis and Vasishth’s (2005) activation-based model and McElree’s (2000) direct access model. Even though these two models have been used almost interchangeably, they are based on different assumptions and predict differences in the relationship between reading times and response accuracy. The activation-based model follows the assumptions of the ACT-R framework, and its retrieval process behaves as a lognormal race between accumulators of evidence with a single variance. Under this model, accuracy of the retrieval is determined by the winner of the race and retrieval time by its rate of accumulation. In contrast, the direct access model assumes a model of memory where only the probability of retrieval can be affected, while the retrieval time is constant; in this model, differences in latencies are a by-product of the possibility of backtracking and repairing incorrect retrievals. We implemented both models in a Bayesian hierarchical framework in order to evaluate them and compare them. We show that some aspects of the data are better fit under the direct access model than under the activation-based model. We suggest that this finding does not rule out the possibility that retrieval may be behaving as a race model with assumptions that follow less closely the ones from the ACT-R framework. We show that by introducing a modification of the activation model, i.e, by assuming that the accumulation of evidence for retrieval of incorrect items is not only slower but noisier (i.e., different variances for the correct and incorrect items), the model can provide a fit as good as the one of the direct access model.