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The Effect of Word Position, Word Frequency and Delay or Distraction after Encoding on Free Recall.

Abstract This experiment aimed to find out whether someones ability to freely recall words from a list is affected by the position of the words in the list and by the words frequency in everyday language. It also aimed to investigate the effect on short term memory of a delay and/or a distraction task between initial encoding and recall. This was done using six word lists, split into groups of high and low frequency words. Participants were required to watch the sets of words being presented one by one on a computer screen, and then recall them in any order under one of three conditions: either immediately, or after a 30 second delay during which time they may be rehearsing the words they have seen, or after a 30 second delay with a distraction task to prevent them from rehearsing. It was suggested that word frequency would affect the primacy effect as high frequency words occurring at the beginning of the lists would be recalled more accurately than low frequency words because they would already have a strong presence in our long term memory. It was also predicted that the best recall would be when there was no delay, and the worst recall would be in the condition where a distracting task was used. It was found that both hypotheses were accurate. The results were explained in terms of the primacy effect (we are more able to recall words at the beginning of a list because they are rehearsed in the short term memory and gradually transferred into the long term memory) and the recency effect (we remember words towards the end of a list reasonably well too because our short term memory has received those pieces of information most recently, so they havent yet decayed or been forgotten). Low frequency words were only recalled accurately when they had been at the end of the list and the participant had experienced the recency effect.


Introduction One of the first people to formulate a multistore model of memory was William James (1890, cited in Loftus & Loftus, 1976). James theory was at first ignored due to the lack of hypothesis and experimental support for the idea, but his notions were adopted by Waugh and Norman (1965, cited in Baine, 1986) who developed their own concept of a multistore model of memory. Their version suggested that we memory has two components: primary memory (precursor to the short term memory as it is known today, or STM, where we briefly hold memories of stimuli that we attend to) and secondary memory (Todays Long Term Memory, or LTM, where more permanent memories are held). Waugh and Norman thought that if rehearsed, information in the primary memory is more likely to enter the secondary memory. Atkinson & Shiffrin (1968, as cited in Baine, 1986) formulated another multistore model of memory, suggesting a store of sensory memory before the STM. They suggested that the sensory store had a large capacity and the ability to take a visual replica of the stimulus, but a short time span of only up to 2 seconds. After this time the information is either lost or is transferred to the STM if attended to. The STM is said to have a capacity of around only 7 (+ or - 2) items. Atkinson & Wickens (1971, as cited in Baine, 1986) suggested that as long as rehearsal was maintained, the information would remain in the STM. Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968, as cited in Baine, 1986) proposed that if the information was not rehearsed however, it would decay in around 10 to 15 seconds. They believed that the STM is also used in the recall of information, where memories from the LTM can become conscious short term memories again and that memories in the LTM are said to be only lost via displacement. The multistore model of memory is supported by neurophysiological evidence, such as that from the case study of Clive Wearing, who suffered from anterograde amnesia after an illness and was left without the ability to convert short term memories into long term memories. He was unable to retain new memories for more than a few moments or fully access old ones. This supports the multistore model because it suggests a distinction between long and short term memories and also a link between the two stores. It is the operation of the STM in this model that is most relevant to this study.


One of the interesting phenomena that has been discovered through previous research into behavioural evidence for the STM is the serial position effect, a term coined by Hermann Ebbinghaus (Ebbinghaus, 1913). This refers to the finding that recall accuracy varies depending on an item's position within a study list. When asked to recall a list of items in any order (free recall), people tend to begin recall with the end of the list, recalling those items best (the recency effect). Among earlier list items, the first few items are recalled more frequently than the middle items (the primacy effect). This study is based on an experiment originally conducted by Glanzer & Cunitz (1966a, as cited in Herriot, 1974) who investigated the effect on the serial position curve of a delay between the stimuli being presented and the time of recall. They found that with no distraction, the primacy/recency curve looked as expected. With a ten second delay, the very end of the curve did not rise quite as high as the curve with no delay, so recall was poorer. With a 30 second delay however, recall was extremely poor. This demonstrates the limit of the STM, suggesting it has a span of only 30 seconds at the most, and the importance of rehearsal if for the stimuli to progress into the LTM. Perhaps the 30 second delay would only have not had an effect if the stimuli were rehearsed in the STM for the entire 30 seconds, but that would be difficult if the participant was being distracted, for example, so this experiment uses a distraction task as one of the conditions before recall for comparison. The experiment in this report is similar in design to that of Glanzer & Cunitz (1966a, as cited in Herriot, 1974). The stimuli used were 6 word lists used in 6 conditions. Half of the word lists contained high frequency words and the others contained low frequency words in order to see if this affected our ability to remember the words. Within each of these 2 categories, the time that elapsed between encoding and recall was altered each time. The options were 0 seconds, 30 seconds and 30 seconds plus a task. The task in the last condition was to distract the participant in order to prevent them from rehearsing the list, to see if this would have impact on the recency effect. It was predicted that similar results to those of their previous experiment (Glanzer & Cunitz 1966a, as cited in Herriot, 1974) would be found, where the longer the time elapsed and the addition of the task would mean that the participants ability to recall words towards the end of the list would be severely reduced. The studys further aim was to see if low frequency words in the lists would be less well remembered than high frequency words, as was suggested by Raymond (1969, as cited in Herriot, 1974). If this were the case, it would be put down to our pre-existing familiarity with high frequency words and


therefore link to our LTM. If the LTM was affected by the distraction task or the delay, we would expect the primacy effect to change too, as our ability to rehearse and store those first few words in the list would be reduced. Thus, the first experimental hypothesis was that the lower the word frequency, the less we expect a primacy effect, so the primacy effect would have a greater impact when high frequency words were used. The second hypothesis was that during free recall, a normal recency effect would be expected after no delay, with more words from the end of the list being recalled accurately. It was predicted that there would be a reduced recency effect after a 30 second delay, and the worst recency effect and recall would be after a 30-second gap with a distracting task to perform. Method Participants The 58 participants used in the experiment were an opportunity sample of 18 to 35 year old Psychology undergraduates. The mean age was 19.7 years. 29 were female and 29 were male. It was not checked whether all the students native languages were English if not, this could have affected the results because it might be more difficult for them to remember a word in a different language, as demonstrated in Craik and Tulvings work on the semantic level of processing (Craik and Tulving, 1975). If participants had reading difficulties such as dyslexia this could also hinder their ability to remember the words when they were presented in sequence. This was however, also not checked, but could be done in further research. Apparatus Two lists of 45 6-letter words were used, one consisting of high frequency words such as colour, public and decide and the other of low frequency words, such as neuter, zealot and lancet. These words were then randomly assigned into six sets of fifteen words that were shown to the participant on a screen. To do this, the participant accessed a specifically designed computer programme, where they read on-screen instructions and then viewed the word lists, and later typed in those which they could recall. The participants could exit the screen which they were to type words into at any time by closing the window if they didnt remember any more. During the distraction task condition, the participants task was to


count down from a certain number in given intervals, such as count down in threes, starting from 99 and they had to type their answers in whilst doing this to show they were doing it properly. (See Appendix A for word lists, full instructions and examples of the data entry screens). Design The experiment used a within-participants design and had two independent variables (IV): the first was the word frequency, which had 2 levels, high and low. The other IV was the delay / activities the participants partook in between seeing and recalling the words. This was on three levels: (i) immediate recall, (ii) 30 seconds elapsed before recall, allowing rehearsal and (iii) 30 seconds elapsed before recall, but with the participant performing a simple counting task to prevent rehearsal. The dependent variable (DV) was the number of words correctly recalled in each position on the list. As previously mentioned, there were six conditions, which contained words randomly selected from both high and low frequency lists and placed in the delaytask conditions. Procedure Participants worked individually in separate booths with a computer and were presented with on-screen instructions (see Appendix A). First there was a practice condition in which the participant was able to get to grips with the task before then attempting all 6 other conditions, where their results were recorded automatically. The word lists were presented at a rate of 1 word per second and a maximum of 3 minutes were allowed for recall. Recall was free, meaning the participants could recall the words in any order. The participants were aware that they would have to recall the words after the test and so intentional learning was taking place. Participants were able to end the three minutes prematurely if they could not recall any more words. For the task in the 30 seconds plus distraction activity condition, participants were given a number and asked to take away a figure from it until they could go no further or until the 30 seconds was up, whichever came first. Results


Figure 1 shows that words in the middle of the list, from serial position 4-12 were particularly poorly recalled, with the first and last words being apparently easier to remember. This suggests a primacy and recency effect in the results, with the primacy effect having the greatest impact when the word list contained high frequency words. This coincides with the prediction that the primacy effect would be greatest when high frequency words were recalled because the long term memory would be called into play. It is shown that the first words in the series were better remembered than the last words in the series in the high frequency word list, so the primacy effect was stronger than the recency effect. In the low frequency word list, however, the opposite occurred - more words at the end of the list were

35 30 Average No. of Times Correctly Recalled 25 20 15 10 5 0 0 2 4 6 8 Se r ial Po s itio n 10 12 14 16

L o w Fre q u e n cy H ig h Fre q u e n cy

remembered than at the beginning of the list. For low frequency words, the recency effect was greater than the primacy effect. Figure 1: Average number of Correct Responses for the High and Low Frequency Word Conditions


Figure 2 shows the curves of the graph when comparing the accuracy of recall in each of the different conditions. This comparison is regardless of the difference in word frequency. The difference between the three conditions is clear. With no delay, accuracy in recall was at its highest, especially for the words later in the list. When 30 seconds elapsed and no task was performed, the participant had time to rehearse those last few words, but recall was still less accurate generally. In the condition where 30 seconds passed and the participant was given a task to carry out, the recall accuracy in the recency period drops significantly. In the 0s condition, the last word in the list is correctly recalled 36 times. In the 30s + task condition, this drops to just 17 times, less than half of the other. As expected, the delay at the end of the task did not really have an affect on the primacy effect.

45 Average No. Words Recalled Correctly 40 35 30 25 20 15 10 5 0 0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 S e ria l P ositio n 0s 30s 30s + tas k

Figure 2: Average number of Correct Responses in Each of the Three conditions


Discussion The results of this experiment all showed support for the serial position effect and work within the constructs of the multistore model of memory. The first hypothesis of this experiment was that the primacy effect would have a greater impact when high frequency words were in the word list. This was because it was assumed that our familiarity with more high frequency words meant that our long term memory (LTM) would be engaged and more words from the beginning of the word list would be remembered without the need for too much rehearsal. The results suggested that this supported the prediction and Raymonds work (Raymond, 1969, as cited in Herriot, 1974). The second hypothesis was that the most accurate recall would be after a 0 second gap between encoding and recall. This would be followed in accuracy by a 30 second gap in which the participant could rehearse the words, and the worst recall would be after a 30 second delay before recall during which time the participant was given a distracting task. The results support this hypothesis as you can see the difference in accuracy in recall in the three conditions, with no delay giving the most accurate recalls. The prediction that the recency effect would be most impacted by the delay task also stands as Figure 1 shows. On the plot for the 30s + task condition, far fewer words were remembered at the end of the word list than at the beginning. The recency effect might have been so impacted because the stimuli were immediately displaced from the STM, which supposedly has a capacity of only 7 (+ or 2) (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968, as cited in Baine, 1986) items at any one time, by the participant having to focus on the counting task. The experiment was well controlled as each participant was working individually on a computer without distractions to their attention such as background noise, which might have impacted on their ability to give full attention to the stimulus they were being presented with. However, the main problem with this study was the order effect - each participant saw, encoded and recalled six word lists and there was a large chance that participants might have been rehearsing or recalling words from a prior list rather than the one in front of them, which could have confused them. An attempt was made to counteract this, as when the participant typed in a wrong answer it was not accepted, so in a way they are being reinforced by the programme and learning which words do not work for each round, but as they were still doing all the conditions one after another, it could be that they remembered the words from


the first test right through until the end, so found it harder to take in new words being shown to them and push out the other words. Perhaps it would have been better to stretch the experiment over a few days so that the last word list was not as fresh in the participants mind as it would have been had they done each condition back to back, so any further research should take this into account. Also, it has been suggested that the multistore model of memory as proposed by Atkinson and Shiffrin is altogether too simplistic as it doesnt categorise different types of stimulus that might be encoded in different ways. For example, Baddeley and Hitch (1974) elaborated the model to include a central executive, connected to a phonological loop and a visual spatial sketchpad to show that there are different types of stimulus that might be processed and remembered differently. In order to ensure the interpretation of the results in this experiment is accurate, further research should be carried out. Possible directions for this could include testing the delay between encoding and recall in smaller increments of time, e.g. in 10 second gaps, in order to get a more accurate span of the short term memory. Another possible alteration would be to test using different lengths of word lists in order to see if this affects the primacy and recency effects. It would be interesting to see if the very first and very last few words are the most accurately recalled in a word list of any length. References

Baine, D. (1986). Memory and instruction. Retrieved 21st January 2011 from

Campbell, R., & Conway, M. A. (1995). Broken memories: Case studies in memory impairment. Oxford, Blackwell.

Craik, F. I. M., & Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of Processing and the Retention of Words in Episodic Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: 1975, Vol. 104, No. 3, p.268294


Ebbinghaus, H. (1913). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology. Columbia University: Teachers College.

Herriot, P. (1974). Attributes of memory. Taylor and Francis.

Loftus, G. R., & Loftus, E. F. (1976). Human memory: The processing of information. Routledge, Psychology Press.


Appendix A Data and Instructions for participants See DUO.