Individual Differences in Sensitivity to Style During Literary Reading: Insights from Eye-Tracking

Emiel van Hoven, Franziska Hartung , M. Burke, Roel Willems

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Style is an important aspect of literature, and stylistic deviations are sometimes labeled foregrounded, since their manner of expression deviates from the stylistic default. Russian Formalists have claimed that foregrounding increases processing demands and therefore causes slower reading – an effect called retardation. We tested this claim experimentally by having participants read short literary stories while measuring their eye movements. Our results confirm that readers indeed read slower and make more regressions towards foregrounded passages as compared to passages that are not foregrounded. A closer look, however, reveals significant individual differences in sensitivity to foregrounding. Some readers in fact do not slow down at all when reading foregrounded passages. The slowing down effect for literariness was related to a slowing down effect for high perplexity (unexpected) words: those readers who slowed down more during literary passages also slowed down more during high perplexity words, even though no correlation between literariness and perplexity existed in the stories. We conclude that individual differences play a major role in processing of literary texts and argue for accounts of literary reading that focus on the interplay between reader and text
Original languageEnglish
Article number2(1)
Number of pages25
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Dec 2016


  • foregrounding
  • literary reading
  • eye-tracking
  • individual differences
  • retardation
  • natural language comprehension


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