Dr Steven Frisson PhD

Dr Steven Frisson

School of Psychology

Contact details

School of Psychology
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT


  • BA/MA University of Leuven (Belgium)
  • PhD University of Antwerp (Belgium)


  • Born: Genk (Belgium)
  • UG/PG: University of Antwerp & University of Leuven (Belgium)
  • PhD: University of Antwerp. For my PhD, I spent 3 years as a fellow of the Belgian Science Foundation at the University of Glasgow, under the guidance of Martin Pickering.
  • Postdocs: As a fellow of the BSF, I spent 2 years at Umass, working with Keith Rayner, Lyn Frazier, Sandy Pollatsek, and Chuck Clifton. I then moved to New York City (NYU), where I worked in Brian McElree’s lab.
  • I moved to Birmingham in 2005.

Postgraduate supervision

I (co-)supervise the following PhD candidates:

  • James Blundell (completed 2016) – Cognitive assessment of paediatric neurodegenerative diseases
  • Helena Condé – Figurative language processing in people with psychosis
  • Chloé Corcoran – Stuttering and (silent) reading
  • Mahmoud Elsherif – The underlying shared mechanisms for silent reading in stutterers and people with dyslexia
  • Nayilah Mesfer Al-Qahtani – The role of morphological structure during word reading in Arabic/English bilinguals

In addition, I supervise several MRes projects each year, most of which involve eye movement research.


When I was an undergraduate student in linguistics, I always reverted back to the same question, often to the annoyance of my professors: But how do we know that this is what people do when they process language? Luckily I found some people who were asking the same question, and my drift into psycholinguistics began. When I then moved to Glasgow and saw all the cool equipment they had, my love for eye-tracking began. One of the great advantages of eye movement research is that it can measure processing as it happens, in a (relatively) normal environment. Since then, eye-tracking research has become much easier (and cheaper), and has proved its staying power in many different domains.

I’m still asking the same general question: how do people comprehend language? Over the years, I’ve approached this question at several different levels of processing, going from low-level visual input to high-level pragmatics, and I have had the great privilege to work with some absolutely outstanding researchers. In the vast majority of the cases, I use the eye-tracking methodology. Some examples:

  • Orthographic and phonological overlap effects in reading, in collaboration with the late Keith Rayner (UCSD), Nathalie Béranger (UCSD), Linda Wheeldon (Birmingham) and Andrew Olson (Birmingham);
  • Predictability in sentence processing, in collaboration with Adrian Staub (Umass) and David Harvey (Warwick);
  • Theory of Mind processing, in collaboration with Ian Apperly (Birmingham) and Elisa Back (Kingston)
  • Pragmatic effects in categorisation, in collaboration with Greg Murphy (NYU);
  • Coercion processes in reading, in collaboration with Brian McElree (NYU) and Martin Pickering (Edinburgh);
  • Figurative language processing, in collaboration with Lewis Bott (Cardiff) and Petra Schumacher (Cologne);
  • Semantic processing in ASD children, in collaboration with Joe McCleery (Birmingham)
  • Figurative language processing in people with psychosis, in collaboration with Helena Condé (PhD candidate, Birmingham);
  • reading processes in people who stutter, in collaboration with Chloé Corcoran (PhD candidate, Birmingham);
  • phonological processing in people who stutter and people with dyslexia, in collaboration with Mahmoud Elsherif (PhD candidate, Birmingham);

However, my main area of interest is semantic processing. In particular, I'm interested in finding out how language users arrive at an interpretation of a word in context. While this seems like a very straightforward thing to do, especially since most of us do not experience much difficulty in comprehending natural language, it is in fact a remarkably complex process that involves decisions and interactions at many different levels. For example, most words have many different interpretations (e.g. school can refer to a place or to an institution; Dickens can refer to a person or to his writings). How do we pick out the right one upon encountering these words? How and when do we integrate a word's meaning in the larger syntactic and semantic context? How do we get to a novel interpretation of a word? Is processing influenced by statistical properties between interpretations? This has led to the idea that readers might activate semantically rather underspecified representations of words (for a summary, see Frisson, 2009). 

Lately I’ve become more and more interested in individual differences in reading, especially amongst adolescents. While we know a lot about how adults (or more specifically, undergraduate students in psychology departments) process language, we hardly know to what extent adolescents exhibit the same strategies and biases. This is surprising as level of literacy is one of the strongest predictors for a whole host of later achievements, and understanding what makes a good reader is, in my view, one of the most important aims for psycholinguists. 


(please contact me for reprints)

Frisson, S., Harvey, D., & Staub, A. (submitted). No prediction error cost in reading: Evidence from eye movements.

Bott, L., Rees, A., & Frisson, S. (2016). The time course of familiar metonymy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42, 1160-1170.

Wang, J. J., Ali, M., Frisson, S., & Apperly, I. A. (2016). Language complexity modulates 8- and 10-year olds’ success at using their theory of mind abilities in a communication task. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 149, 62-71.

Christou A. I., Wallis Y., Bair H., Crawford H., Frisson S., Zeegers M. & McCleery J. P. (2015). BDNFVal66Met and 5-HTTLPR genotype are each associated with visual scanning patterns of faces in young children. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9, 175.

Frisson, S. (2015). About bound and scary books: The processing of book polysemies. Lingua, 157, 17-35.

Frisson, S., Koole, H., Hughes, L., Olson, A., & Wheeldon, L. (2014). Orthographic and phonological priming during sentence reading. Journal of Memory and Language, 73, 148-173.

Frisson, S., Bélanger, N. N., & Rayner, K. (2014). Phonological and orthographic overlap effects in fast priming. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 67, 1742-1767.

Blundell, J., Kearney, S., Gissen, P., Hendriksz, C., Vijay, S., Chakrapani, A., Frisson, S., & Olson, A. (2013). Measuring Cognitive effects of metabolic disease usine eye-movements. Molecular Genetics and Metabolism, 108, S25.

Frisson, S., & Wakefield, M. (2012). Psychological essentialist reasoning and perspective taking during reading: A donkey is not a zebra, but a plate can be a clock. Memory & Cognition, 40, 297-310.

Frisson, S., Pickering, M. J, & McElree, B. (2011). The difficult mountain: Enriched composition in adjective-noun phrases. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18, 1172-1179.

Ganushchak, L., Krott, A., Frisson, S., & Meyer, A. (2011). Processing words and SMS shortcuts in sentential contexts: An eye movement study. Applied Psycholinguistics. Firstview Article, 1-17.

Bott, L., Frisson, S., & Murphy, G. L. (2009). Interpreting conjunctions. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 4, 681-706.

Frisson, S. (2009). Semantic underspecification in language processing. Language and Linguistic Compass, 3, 111-127.

Frisson, S., & McElree, B. (2008). Complement coercion is not modulated by competition: Evidence from eye movements. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 34, 1-11.

Frisson, S., Niswander-Klement, E., & Pollatsek, A. (2008). The role of semantic transparency in the processing of English compound words. British Journal of Psychology, 99, 87-107.

Harris, J., Pylkkanen, L., McElree, B., & Frisson, S. (2008). The cost of question concealment: Eye-tracking and MEG evidence. Brain and Language, 107, 44-61.

Frisson, S., & Pickering, M. J. (2007). The processing of familiar and novel senses of a word: Why reading Dickens is easy but reading Needham can be hard. Language and Cognitive Processes, 22, 595-613.

Pickering, M. J., McElree, B., Frisson, S., Chen, L., & Traxler, M. (2006). Aspectual coercion and underspecification. Discourse Processes, 42, 131-155.

McElree, B., Frisson, S., & Pickering, M. J. (2006). Deferred interpretations: Why starting Dickens is taxing but reading Dickens isn’t. Cognitive Science, 30, 115-124.

Frisson, S., Rayner, K., & Pickering, M. J. (2005). Effects of contextual predictability and transitional probability on eye movements. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31, 862-877.

Frisson, S., & Frazier, L. (2005). Carving up word meaning: Portioning and grinding. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 277-291.

Sandra, D., Frisson, S, & Daems, F. (2004). Still errors after all those years: Limited attentional resources and homophone frequency account for spelling errors on silent verb suffixes in Dutch. Written Language & Literacy, 7, 61-77.

Frisson, S. & Sandra, D. (2002). Determinanten van werkwoordfouten in de Nederlandse spelling: Een experimenteel onderzoek bij ervaren spellers en kinderen. [Determining factors of spelling errors to Dutch verbs: An experimental investigation of proficient spellers and children]. Nederlandse Taalkunde. 7, 127-141.

Frisson, S. & Sandra, D. (2002) Homophonic forms of regularly inflected verbs have their own orthographic representations: A developmental perspective on spelling errors. Brain and Language, 81 (1, 2&3), 545-554.

Sandra, D., Brysbaert, M., Frisson, S., & Daems, F. (2001). Paradoxen van de Nederlandse werkwoordspelling: Een confrontatie tussen taalkundige logica, problemen voor spellers en bruikbaarheid voor lezers, De Psycholoog, 36 (6), 282-287. [Paradoxes of the Dutch verb spelling: A confrontation between linguistic logic, problems for spellers, and usability for readers.]

Frisson, S. & Pickering, M.J. (2001). Figurative language processing in the Underspecification Model. Metaphor and Symbol, 16 (3&4), 149-171.

Sandra, D., Daems, F., & Frisson, S. (2001). Zoveel helderheid en toch zoveel fouten: psycholinguïstisch onderzoek naar werkwoordfouten bij ervaren spellers en implicaties voor het onderwijs. Vonk, 3, 3-20. [So much clarity and still so many mistakes: Psycholinguistic research of spelling errors by adult spellers and implications for teaching.]

Pickering, M. J. & Frisson, S. (2001). Processing ambiguous verbs: Evidence from eye movements. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 27, 556-573.

Brisard, F., Frisson, S., & Sandra, D. (2001). Processing unfamiliar metaphors in a self-paced reading task. Metaphor and Symbol, 16(1&2), 87-108.

Frisson, S. & Pickering, M. J. (1999). The processing of Metonymy: Evidence from eye movements. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 25, 1366-1383.

Sandra, D., Frisson, S., & Daems, F. (1999) Why simple verbs can be so difficult to spell: The influence of homophone frequency and distance in Dutch. Brain and Language, 68, 277-283.

Frisson, S., Sandra, D., Brisard, F., Van Rillaer, G, & Cuyckens, H. (1998). Flexible semantic processing of spatial prepositions. Journal of Semantics, 15, 191-214.