Moving and memorizing: motor planning modulates the recency effect in serial and free recall

Acta Psychol (Amst). 2009 Sep;132(1):68-79. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2009.06.005. Epub 2009 Jul 9.


Motor planning has generally been studied in situations where participants carry out physical actions without a particular purpose. Yet in everyday life physical actions are usually carried out for higher-order goals. We asked whether two previously discovered motor planning phenomena--the end-state comfort effect and motor hysteresis--would hold up if the actions were carried out in the service of higher-order goals. The higher-order goal we chose to study was memorization. By focusing on memorization, we asked not only how and whether motor planning is affected by the need to memorize, but also how memory performance might depend on the cognitive demands of motor planning. We asked university-student participants to retrieve cups from a column of drawers and memorize as many letters as possible from the inside of the cups. The drawers were opened either in a random order (Experiment 1) or in a regular order (Experiments 2 and 3). The end-state comfort effect and motor hysteresis were replicated in these conditions, indicating that the effects hold up when physical actions are carried out for the sake of a higher-order goal. Surprisingly, one of the most reliable effects in memory research was eliminated, namely, the tendency of recent items to be recalled better than earlier items--the recency effect. This outcome was not an artifact of memory being uniformly poor, because the tendency of initial items to be recalled better than later items--the primacy effect--was obtained. Elimination of the recency effect was not due to the requirement that participants recall items in their correct order, for the recency effect was also eliminated when the items could be recalled in any order (Experiment 3). These and other aspects of the results support recent claims for tighter links between perceptual-motor control and intellectual (symbolic) processing than have been assumed in the past.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Hand Strength / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Motor Skills / physiology*
  • Regression Analysis
  • Retention, Psychology / physiology*
  • Serial Learning / physiology*