Context Effects on Ambiguous Idiom Comprehension in Older and Younger Adults

Amy de Silva, University of Maine


The focus of the current study was on idiom comprehension in younger and older adults. Due to inconsistent results in previous studies, it is unclear whether older adults may have problems understanding idioms. For the current study, I used a sentence-to-word matching task presented on an iPad with software that recorded participants’ response time and accuracy. Participants also completed a familiarity task where they rated idioms on how frequently these phrases were encountered. I predicted that older adults would have more difficulty comprehending idioms because of the context in which the idioms were embedded and the timed nature of the task. I also predicted that both age groups would rate the idioms as highly familiar because we purposefully selected these types of expressions. With respect to the sentence-to-word matching task, results showed that although older adults were slower overall, both younger and older adults showed faster response times and greater accuracy for idiomatic targets following idiomatically-biased contexts than for literal targets following literally-biased contexts. With respect to the familiarity ratings task, results showed that both age groups were very familiar with the idioms. These findings suggest that older adults are able to successfully use context to understand familiar ambiguous idioms and that they do not have difficulty comprehending idioms in a cognitively demanding timed task.