The Forgotten Middle Child of Memory: The Serial Position Effect In our lives, there are many situations in which we are required to remember lists of items. We are presented with situations as simple as remembering what we were supposed to buy at the grocery store to more complicated situations of having to memorize lists of vocabulary words in school in our everyday lives. Thus it is important to know and understand how we remember such things so we can effectively recall them when necessary. Typically, we are not required to remember the exact order or position in which items were presented when recalling them. According to Francis, Neath, MacKewn, & Goldthwaite (2004) this type of recall, in which "the order of the items is not required for accurate recall," is often termed free recall (pg. 60). However, many researchers have found that the likelihood of recalling items (such as words, letters, or numbers) does in fact depend on the items position in a list. This is often referred to as the serial position effect. The most common finding is that words at the beginning and end of the list are often easier and more accurately recalled than those words in the middle of the list. The improved recall for the words at the beginning of the list is often referred to as the primacy effect. Likewise, the improved recall of the words at the end of the list is referred to as the recency effect. Thus, when the results of a free recall experiment are plotted on a graph a u-shaped serial position curve is often formed. Many researchers have attempted to explain the serial position effect. A common explanation of the primacy and recency effects were introduced by Atkinson & Shiffrin (1968). According to this viewpoint the primacy effect is a result of the greater amount of attention and rehearsal allocated to the first few items on a list. This advantage in processing given to those items allows them to be transferred into the long-term memory store and thus have a higher probability of being retrieved out of long-term memory. They (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968) attributed the recency effect to signify output from what they referred to as primary memory in the form of a short-term memory buffer. Thus, the most recent items viewed in a list are still in short-term memory and are recalled there. A large amount of research has been done in order to demonstrate this two part memory system as an explanation of the serial position effect. Evidence that the primacy effect is due to a greater amount of rehearsal to the first few items is clear in a study done by Rundus (1971). In this study subjects were asked to rehearse out loud and it was recorded. After reviewing the recordings Rundus (1971) found that participants devoted more overt rehearsal to the first few items on the list. Another example of research supporting the two part memory system explanation shows that the primacy effect should be reduced or eliminated if all of the words on a list are rehearsed an equal number of times. In a study done by Welch & Burnett (1924) participants were asked to only rehearse the items while they were being presented. As a result the primacy effect was either reduced or eliminated among the participants. Thus, by having participants attempt to transfer all of the items into long-term store the primacy effect is reduced. Research done by Glanzer & Cunitz (1966) also showed that primacy is reduced when the items are presented at a faster rate, thus eliminating opportunity for extensive rehearsal by the participants. Research has also been done to demonstrate the use of short-term memory in explaining the recency effect. Because the recency effect is explained by a retrieval of items from short-term memory, it should be eliminated if a person is asked to do another task before they are asked to recall the items on the list. This was demonstrated in experiments by both Postman &...
References: Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. Psychology of learning and motivation: II, 249.
Francis, G., Neath, I., MacKewn, A., & Goldthwaite, D
Glanzer, M., & Cunitz, A. R. (1966). Two storage mechanisms in free recall. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 5, 351-360.
Postman, L., & Phillips, L
Reed, S. K. (2004). Long-Term Memory. In Cognition Theory and Application (pp. 97-124). Belmont: Wadsworth.
Welch, G. B., & Burnett, C. T. (1924). Is Primacy a Factor in Association-Formation. American Journal of Psychology, 35, 396-401.
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