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J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2000 May;26(3):547-65.

The source of feelings of familiarity: the discrepancy-attribution hypothesis.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.


Many investigators have observed that the feeling of familiarity is associated with fluency of processing. The authors demonstrated a case in which the feeling of familiarity did not result from fluency per se; they argued that it resulted instead from perceiving a discrepancy between the actual and expected fluency of processing (B. W. A. Whittlesea & L. D. Williams, 1998). In this article, the authors extend that argument. They observed that stimuli that are experienced as strongly familiar when presented in isolation are instead experienced as being novel when presented in a rhyme or semantic context. They interpreted that result to mean that in those other contexts, the subjects brought a different standard to bear in evaluating the fluency of their processing. This different standard caused the subjects to perceive their performance not as discrepant, but as coherent in one case and incongruous in the other. The authors suggest that the perception of discrepancy is a major factor in producing the feeling of familiarity. They further suggest that the occurrence of that perception depends on the task in which the person is engaged when encountering the stimulus, because that task affects the standard that the person will apply in evaluating their processing.

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