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Measures of accessibility

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Sometimes, researchers need to ascertain the accessibility of various mental representations. For example, Knowles and Gardner (2008) asserted that social identities, such as their family or ethnicitity of individuals, become more accessible after they feel rejected. These social identities offset these feelings of rejection and exclusion. Hence, they utilized several techniques to establish whether or not these social identities are accessible. Other studies have been conducted to ascertain whether various motives or goals are accessible (see Higgins, 1997).

Several methods have been developed to assess the accessibility of particular goals, motives, and constructs. These methods include:

Word completion tasks

To assess whether a specific goal, motive, or construct is accessible or salient, participants sometimes complete a work completion task (e.g., Edwards & Pearce, 1994 & Knowles & Gardner, 2008 & Schimel, Greenberg, & Martens, 2003). Typically a set of 10 to 50 word fragments are presented. Examples might include "_ub", "fam_", "_mber", "_am", or "ma_". The task of participants is to complete these fragments to form a word. The responses, for example, might be club, family, member, team, and male.

Typically, some of the words correspond to a specific goal, motive, or construct. For example, to assess whether or not social identities are accessible, some of the answers might correspond to various forms of group membership. The remaining words might correspond to an alternative goal, motive, or construct--or merely represent irrelevant terms that are similar in length and frequency.

Several methods can be used to gauge the accessibility of some goal, motive, or construct. The proportion of relevant fragments that were completed correctly can be computed. An elevated proportion indicates the corresponding goal, motice, or construct was accessible.

Reaction time tasks

Reaction time tasks can also be used to characterize the accessibility of specific goals, motives, or constructs (Fischler & Bloom, 1979 & Knowles & Gardner, 2008 & Mikulincer, Gillath, & Shaver, 2002). Usually, various strings of letters, such as "nabit" or "family", are presented on a screen in sequence. Participants are asked to press one button if the letters represent a word and another button if the letters do not represent a word.

Usually, a proportion of the words correspond to a specific goal, motive, or construct. For example, in the second study conducted by Knowles and Gardner (2008), 14 of the 21 words related to social identities, such as feminine, male, Asian, and Caucasion. The remaining words were matched on length and frequency or familiarity. Relatively fast reaction times on the relevant words indicate the correspond goal, motive, or construct is accessible.

Free association tasks

Finally, sometimes individuals are asked to present a series of responses to a single question, such as "Name some of your friends". The order in which participants present these answeres is sometimes regarded as an indirect measure of accessibility (see Fitzsimons & Shah, 2008). That is, the answers that are presented earlier rather than later are regarded a more accessible.


Edwards, L. C. & Pearce, S. A. (1994). Word completion in chronic pain: Evidence for schematic representation of pain. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 379-382.

Fischler, I. S. & Bloom, P. A. (1979). Automatic and attentional processes in the effects of sentence contexts on word recognition. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18, 1-20.

Fitzsimons, G. M, & Shah, J. Y. (2008). How goal instrumentality shapes relationship evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 319-337.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280-1300.

Knowles, M. L., & Gardner, W. L. (2008). Benefits of membership: The activation and amplification of group identities in response to social rejection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1200-1213.

Mikulincer, M., Gillath, O. & Shaver, P.R. (2002). Activation of the attachment system in adulthood: Threat-related primes increase the accessibility of mental representations of attachment figures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 881-895.

Schimel, J., Greenberg, J. & Martens, A. (2003). Evidence that projection of a feared trait can serve a defensive function. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 969-979.

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Last Update: 5/28/2016