Studying Individual Differences in Language Comprehension: The Challenges of Item-Level Variability and Well-Matched Control Conditions.
Blott LM., Gowenlock AE., Kievit R., Nation K., Rodd JM.
Translating experimental tasks that were designed to investigate differences between conditions at the group-level into valid and reliable instruments to measure individual differences in cognitive skills is challenging (Hedge et al., 2018; Rouder et al., 2019; Rouder & Haaf, 2019). For psycholinguists, the additional complexities associated with selecting or constructing language stimuli, and the need for appropriate well-matched baseline conditions make this endeavour particularly complex. In a typical experiment, a process-of-interest (e.g. ambiguity resolution) is targeted by contrasting performance in an experimental condition with performance in a well-matched control condition. In many cases, careful between-condition matching precludes the same participant from encountering all stimulus items. Unfortunately, solutions that work for group-level research (e.g. constructing counterbalanced experiment versions) are inappropriate for individual-differences designs. As a case study, we report an ambiguity resolution experiment that illustrates the steps that researchers can take to address this issue and assess whether their measurement instrument is both valid and reliable. On the basis of our findings, we caution against the widespread approach of using datasets from group-level studies to also answer important questions about individual differences.