We report a series of event-related potential experiments designed to dissociate the functionally distinct processes involved in the comprehension of highly restricted lexical-semantic relations (antonyms). We sought to differentiate between influences of semantic relatedness (which are independent of the experimental setting) and processes related to predictability (which differ as a function of the experimental environment). To this end, we conducted three ERP studies contrasting the processing of antonym relations (black-white) with that of related (black-yellow) and unrelated (black-nice) word pairs. Whereas the lexical-semantic manipulation was kept constant across experiments, the experimental environment and the task demands varied: Experiment 1 presented the word pairs in a sentence context of the form The opposite of X is Y and used a sensicality judgment. Experiment 2 used a word pair presentation mode and a lexical decision task. Experiment 3 also examined word pairs, but with an antonymy judgment task. All three experiments revealed a graded N400 response (unrelated > related > antonyms), thus supporting the assumption that semantic associations are processed automatically. In addition, the experiments revealed that, in highly constrained task environments, the N400 gradation occurs simultaneously with a P300 effect for the antonym condition, thus leading to the superficial impression of an extremely “reduced” N400 for antonym pairs. Comparisons across experiments and participant groups revealed that the P300 effect is not only a function of stimulus constraints (i.e., sentence context) and experimental task, but that it is also crucially influenced by individual processing strategies used to achieve successful task performance.

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