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Serial Position Effects: The Effect of Temporal Order on Free Recall of Words 2/13/2012

EFFECT OF TEMPORAL ORDER ON FREE RECALL Abstract The current study explored the existence of serial position effects by analyzing the effect of temporal order on free recall of words. Researchers presented 180 undergraduates from an East Coast University with 21 consecutive words and then instructed them to write as many as they could recall on a blank sheet. The words were divided into three categories (beginning, middle, end) based on their presentation order. As hypothesized, participants recalled more beginning than end and more end than middle words; however, results did not support a third prediction that participants would recall more end than beginning words. Together, these findings suggest that traditional serial position effects (the primacy effect, in particular) occur in recall of semantic stimuli.

EFFECT OF TEMPORAL ORDER ON FREE RECALL Serial Position Effects: The Effect of Temporal Order on Free Recall of Words Beginning with Ebbinghaus's memory experiment (1908), numerous studies have supported evidence of the primacy and recency effects. The primacy and recency effects illustrate the tendencies of individuals to recall items at the beginning or end of a series more frequently than those in the middle; temporal order of items in a series, therefore, influences our ability to freely recall these items. Previous studies, including an experiment by Roediger and

Crowder (1976), have broadened knowledge of these phenomena by illustrating that these effects occur during recall of items that pertain to both episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory, which refers to an individual's recollections of lifetime events, requires knowledge of events temporal aspects in order to properly recall these events. Semantic memory, on the other hand, employs general knowledge of concepts and meanings that are unrelated to a specific event; therefore, semantic memory should not theoretically require knowledge of temporal aspects in order to properly function. Evidence of primacy and recency effects in semantic and episodic memory suggest that multiple approaches can be taken while considering explanations of these events; however, previous research emphasizes that these effects may be the result of several factors, particularly the use of series cues and memorization techniques to improve one's recollection of items in semantic and episodic memory. The results of prior research influenced Roediger and Crowder (1976) to explore the existences of serial position effects in semantic memory, as previous experiments studied these phenomena only in relation to episodic memory. The researchers asked 159 undergraduate students to write the names of all United States presidents on a sheet of paper. They instructed some subjects to write the names in order of presidency ("free position recall" condition) and others to write the names in no particular order (free recall condition). The researchers


assumed that knowledge of presidents names only pertained to long-term semantic memory and that subjects were therefore unable to employ the use of short-term memory stores or differential processing during name recall. This assumption led them to hypothesize that serial position effects would not exist in either condition. Contrary to this prediction, the results of subjects in both conditions provided evidence of traditional primacy and recency effects; subjects also recalled President Lincoln's name with unusual frequency. The researchers attributed the primacy effect displayed in these results to a theory by Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968), who claimed that the primacy effect may be the result of giving increased attention to items at the beginning of a list by rehearsing them. Roediger and Crowder attributed high recall of Lincoln to the von Restorff effect, which presumes that certain items in a series may be distinctive from the others, and thus more frequently recalled (Wallace, 1965). In conjunction with Roediger and Crowders (1976) efforts to explain sequence effects, later studies have given considerable attention to the von Restorff effect and a two-system Atkinson-Shiffrin model (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968; Wallace, 1965). The Atkinson-Shiffrin model proposed that the recency effect exists because items that are located at a seriess end tend to reside within a short-term memory system. It also claims that the primacy effect is the result of frequently attending to items that are presented early in a sequence, and therefore increasing the chance that they will be embedded within a long-term memory system. Research by Postman and Phillips (1965) indicates evidence of the short-term memory system by finding that participants who completed a "distractor task" after viewing a list of items recalled the items less accurately than participants who did not complete a task. A study by Rundus (1971) has provided evidence of the von Restorff effect: Individuals who were instructed to verbally rehearse items on a list frequently placed more rehearsal emphasis on the first few items of a sequence. The consistency

EFFECT OF TEMPORAL ORDER ON FREE RECALL of these studies with the theories proposed by Shiffrin, Atkinson, and von Restorff suggests that

the researcher should genuinely consider these theories while making inferences about the cause of any existing serial position effects in the current experiment. The current experiment expands previous research by examining the existence of primacy and recency effects in free recall of a word list. The researcher presented a total of 21 emotionally neutral words to participants, and then asked them to write as many words as they could remember on blank paper. Prior research has examined the solidity of frequently cited theories that explain primacy and recency effects; however, much of this research has not explored the existence of serial position effects in free recall of semantic stimuli. Researchers who have studied these effects in semantic memory, such as Roediger and Crowder (1976), have also addressed difficulty in exposing participants to words that employ the sole use of semantic memory. The current experiment presented participants with fundamentally semantic words; while participants were not expected to know the meanings of the items, the common usage of these words in everyday language led the researcher to assume that they are embedded solely within the semantic memory of the English speaking sample of University students. Therefore, this study may provide insight to the occurrence of serial position effects in semantic stimuli; it is worth noting whether any effects occur at all, as a lack of serial position effects in item recall would contradict prior research, and may indicate that participants employed memorization techniques, such as drawing semantic connections or using visualization in order to recall the words. In acknowledgment of previous research, the researcher predicts that results from participants in the current study will exhibit some extent of the primacy effect, and that participants will recall more words from the beginning than the middle of the list. The researcher


also hypothesizes that a recency effect will emerge, as participants will not have a distractor task. The lack of a distractor task also motivates the researcher's final hypothesis, which is that recall of words from the end of the list will be higher than that of words from the beginning; this is perhaps the most interesting of the hypotheses, as any supporting results would provide evidence of the recency effect in semantic memory, as well as supporting evidence of Shiffer and Atkinson's short-term memory system. Method Participants Participants included 180 psychology undergraduate students from a medium-sized university on the east coast. Of the 180 students, 139 were female (77.2%) and 41 were male (22.8%). Their ages ranged from 19-30 years (Mage = 20.67, SD = 1.354) and their years in school ranged from 2-5 years (Myear = 3.08, SD = .564). Participants were recruited in an academic course without compensation. All participants gave informed consent before volunteering in the study. Design A within-subjects design was employed to measure the effect of varying temporal order on free recall of items in a list. The researcher manipulated temporal order of item presentation by dividing a total of 21 words into three conditions that were presented to participants in three different orders. The first condition (beginning) presented participants with the first seven words, the second condition (middle) presented participants with the next seven words, and the third condition (end) presented participants with the last seven words. The researcher measured participants' free recall of the words from each category by instructing them to write down as

EFFECT OF TEMPORAL ORDER ON FREE RECALL many words as they could remember on blank paper, then recording the number of words recalled from each of the three temporal categories. Materials The list of items that participants recalled consisted of 21 commonly used words. The researcher chose neutral words to prevent participants from connecting the words to life events, which would employ episodic memory and introduce extraneous variables. The researcher also used short words (five characters and under) to minimize reading effort, as the length of exposure to each word was relatively brief (approximately 2 seconds). She used a 21-slide powerpoint presentation to present the 21 items individually and in the respective order of their conditions. A list of items is attached in Appendix. Procedure All participants remained in one room (approximately 30 participants per session) and were shown 21 words on the powerpoint slides after signing an informed consent agreement. Before presenting the slides, the researcher instructed the participants to memorize as many of the words as possible. The researcher then presented the slides over the span of approximately

one minute, ensuring that each slide was shown for no more than two seconds. After viewing the slides, participants were allowed 20 seconds to write as many words as they could recall on a blank sheet of paper. Following completion of this task, the researcher collected the participants' sheets and recorded the number of correct words that each participant wrote from each category (beginning, middle, end). Results Analyses focus on the average number of words that participants recalled from each category (see Table 1 for means and standard deviations). Three paired samples t-tests were

EFFECT OF TEMPORAL ORDER ON FREE RECALL conducted at alpha = .05 to compare participants recall of items from each temporal category.

As predicted, participants recalled significantly more beginning than middle words, t(179) = 19.49, p < .00025, one-tailed test, d = 1.45, power = 1. Also as predicted, participants recalled significantly more end than middle words, t(179) = 3.72, p < .00025, one-tailed test, d = .28, power = .589. Contrary to the researcher's hypothesis, the third t-test demonstrated that participants recalled significantly more beginning than end words, t(179) = -13.73, p < .00025, one-tailed test, d = -1.02, power = 1. As seen in Figure 1, there was high recall of words that were presented in the beginning. Discussion The purpose of this experiment was to measure the effect of temporal order on free recall of a word list. The researcher made two hypotheses that inferred the existence of primacy and recency effects, as well as one prediction that suggested higher recall of end than beginning words. Based on the findings, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that traditional serial position effects occur during recall of a word series. An unexpected finding was significantly higher recall of beginning than end words, which suggests that participants may have used memorization techniques such as subvocal rehearsal; earlier studies (Rundus & Atkinson, 1970) have cited rehearsal as a potential cause of prominent primacy effects in free recall, and this leads one to consider whether this data supports Shiffrin's (1970) supposition that both rehearsal and the von Restorff effect influence primacy effects; perhaps, asking participants if they recall using any memorization techniques may enlighten researchers in future studies. However, the researcher's assumption that item recall was free of episodic influence may be incorrect; drawing connections between certain words may have biased word recall between the conditions. Some words presented in the beginning condition, for instance, are objects of nature: Greater semantic

EFFECT OF TEMPORAL ORDER ON FREE RECALL similarity between beginning words and those of other categories, therefore, may explain why participants could significantly recall more words at the beginning of the list. One should also consider that episodic memory may have actually played a role in recall; because all words referred to physical concepts, they may have triggered images of past events in certain participants. This could have made recall of objects that were more distinctive more readily

available (the von Restorff effect). Perhaps, asking participants whether they recalled visualizing scenes or objects in future studies may prevent such bias. Despite these limitations, however, the present study is a valuable contribution because its findings support the existence of traditional serial position effects in semantic memory. Given the very large effect size in comparing recall of beginning and end words, future research should investigate the possibility that the primacy effect occurs more frequently than the recency effect in certain situations; for example, during recall of semantic items. It is also worth exploring the existence of serial position effects after employing various memorization techniques, as some, such as visualization, may employ one form of memory to a greater extent than the other and therefore present varying influences on serial position effects.

EFFECT OF TEMPORAL ORDER ON FREE RECALL References Atkinson, R.C., & Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its


control processes. In K.W. Spence & J.T. Spence, The psychology of learning and motivation (pp. 89-195). New York: Academic Press. Ebbinghaus, H. (1908). Psychology: An elementary text-book. Translated and edited by Max Meyer. Boston: D.C. Heath. Postman, L., & Phillips, L. W. (1965). Short term temporal changes in free recall. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 17(1), 132-138. Roediger, H.L., & Crowder, R.G. (1976). A serial position effect in recall of united states presidents. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 8(4), 275-278. Rundus, D. (1971). Analysis of rehearsal processes in free recall. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 89(1), 63-77. Rundus, D., & Atkinson, R. C. (1970). Rehearsal processes in free recall: A procedure for direct observation. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 9(1), 99-105. Shiffrin, R.M. (1970). Memory search. In D.A. Norman (Ed.), Models of human memory. New York: Academic Press. Wallace, W.P. (1965). Review of the historical, empirical, and theoretical status of the von restorff phenomenon. Psychological Bulletin, 63(1), 410-424.

EFFECT OF TEMPORAL ORDER ON FREE RECALL Appendix Items presented to participants






Means and Standard Deviations for Condition on Word Recall


Beginning Middle End

M 5.14 2.29 2.89

SD 1.259 1.388 1.562



Figure 1. Average number of words recalled as a function of presentation order.