Why do participants initiate free recall of short lists of words with the first list item? Toward a general episodic memory explanation

J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2014 Nov;40(6):1551-67. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000028. Epub 2014 Jun 16.


Participants who are presented with a short list of words for immediate free recall (IFR) show a strong tendency to initiate their recall with the 1st list item and then proceed in forward serial order. We report 2 experiments that examined whether this tendency was underpinned by a short-term memory store, of the type that is argued by some to underpin recency effects in IFR. In Experiment 1, we presented 3 groups of participants with lists of between 2 and 12 words for IFR, delayed free recall, and continuous-distractor free recall. The to-be-remembered words were simultaneously spoken and presented visually, and the distractor task involved silently solving a series of self-paced, visually presented mathematical equations (e.g., 3 + 2 + 4 = ?). The tendency to initiate recall at the start of short lists was greatest in IFR but was also present in the 2 other recall conditions. This finding was replicated in Experiment 2, where the to-be-remembered items were presented visually in silence and the participants spoke aloud their answers to computer-paced mathematical equations. Our results necessitate that a short-term buffer cannot be fully responsible for the tendency to initiate recall from the beginning of a short list; rather, they suggest that the tendency represents a general property of episodic memory that occurs across a range of time scales.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Humans
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Memory, Short-Term
  • Mental Recall*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Probability
  • Psychological Tests
  • Serial Learning
  • Speech
  • Speech Perception
  • Time