The semantic distance task: Quantifying semantic distance with semantic network path length

Yoed N. Kenett, Effi Levi, David Anaki, Miriam Faust

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

108 Scopus citations


Semantic distance is a determining factor in cognitive processes, such as semantic priming, operating upon semantic memory. The main computational approach to compute semantic distance is through latent semantic analysis (LSA). However, objections have been raised against this approach, mainly in its failure at predicting semantic priming. We propose a novel approach to computing semantic distance, based on network science methodology. Path length in a semantic network represents the amount of steps needed to traverse from 1 word in the network to the other. We examine whether path length can be used as a measure of semantic distance, by investigating how path length affect performance in a semantic relatedness judgment task and recall from memory. Our results show a differential effect on performance: Up to 4 steps separating between word-pairs, participants exhibit an increase in reaction time (RT) and decrease in the percentage of word-pairs judged as related. From 4 steps onward, participants exhibit a significant decrease in RT and the word-pairs are dominantly judged as unrelated. Furthermore, we show that as path length between word-pairs increases, success in free- and cued-recall decreases. Finally, we demonstrate how our measure outperforms computational methods measuring semantic distance (LSA and positive pointwise mutual information) in predicting participants RT and subjective judgments of semantic strength. Thus, we provide a computational alternative to computing semantic distance. Furthermore, this approach addresses key issues in cognitive theory, namely the breadth of the spreading activation process and the effect of semantic distance on memory retrieval.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1470-1489
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 American Psychological Association.


  • LSA
  • Memory recall
  • Network science
  • Semantic distance
  • Spreading activation


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