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The low-frequency encoding disadvantage: Word frequency affects processing demands.
Low-frequency words produce more hits and fewer false alarms than high-frequency words in a recognition task. The low-frequency hit rate advantage has sometimes been attributed to processes that operate during the recognition test (e.g., L. M. Reder et al., 2000). When tasks other than recognition, such as recall, cued recall, or associative recognition, are used, the effects seem to contradict a low-frequency advantage in memory. Four experiments are presented to support the claim that in addition to the advantage of low-frequency words at retrieval, there is a low-frequency disadvantage during encoding. That is, low-frequency words require more processing resources to be encoded episodically than high-frequency words. Under encoding conditions in which processing resources are limited, low-frequency words show a larger decrement in recognition than high-frequency words. Also, studying items (pictures and words of varying frequencies) along with low-frequency words reduces performance for those stimuli.