Keeping an Eye on Effort: A Pupillometric Investigation of Effort and Effortlessness in Visual Word Recognition

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rapid and seemingly effortless word recognition is a virtually unquestioned characteristic of skilled reading, yet the definition and operationalization of the concept of cognitive effort have proven elusive. We investigated the cognitive effort involved in oral and silent word reading using pupillometry among adults (Experiment 1, N = 30; Experiment 2, N = 20) and fourth through sixth graders (Experiment 3, N = 30; Experiment 4, N = 18). We compared multiple pupillary measures (mean, peak, and peak latency) for reading familiar words (real words) and unfamiliar letter strings (pseudowords) varying in length. Converging with the behavioral data for accuracy and response times, pupillary responses demonstrated a greater degree of cognitive effort for pseudowords compared with real words and stronger length effects for pseudowords than for real words. These findings open up new possibilities for studying the issue of effort and effortlessness in the field of word recognition and other fields of skill learning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-95
Number of pages16
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Sam Hutton, Stav Magalnik, and Amir Yair for their assistance in designing the experiments. We thank Ronen Hershman, Stuart Steinhauer, Noga Cohen, and Amit Yashar for their valuable comments. We also thank Tami Katzir for her support in this work. Finally, we are grateful to the children, the parents, and the students who participated in this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2020.


  • effort
  • pupillometry
  • reading
  • skill learning
  • word recognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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