Animate and Inanimate Words Demonstrate Equivalent Retrieval Dynamics Despite the Occurrence of the Animacy Advantage

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People demonstrate a memory advantage for animate (living) concepts over inanimate (nonliving) concepts in a variety of memory tasks, including free recall, but we do not know the mechanism(s) that produces this effect. We compared the retrieval dynamics (serial-position effects, probability of first recall, output order, categorical clustering, and recall contiguity) of animate and inanimate words in a typical free recall task to help elucidate this effect. Participants were more likely to recall animate than inanimate words, but we found few, if any, differences in retrieval dynamics by word type. The animacy advantage was obtained across serial position, including occurring in both the primacy and recency regions of the lists. Participants were equally likely to recall an animate or inanimate word first on the tests and did not prioritize recalling words of one type earlier in retrieval or demonstrate strong clustering by animacy at recall. Participants showed some greater contiguity of recall for inanimate words, but this outcome ran counter to the animacy effect. Together, the results suggest that the animacy advantage stems from increased item-specific memory strength for animate over inanimate words and is unlikely to stem from intentional or strategic differences in encoding or retrieval by word type, categorical strategies, or differences in temporal organization. Although the present results do not directly support or refute any current explanations for the animacy advantage, we suggest that measures of retrieval dynamics can help to inspire or constrain future accounts for this effect and can be incorporated into relevant hypothesis testing.

Original languageEnglish
Article number661451
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - Jun 3 2021


  • adaptive memory
  • animacy advantage
  • animacy effect
  • free recall
  • probability of first retrieval
  • retrieval contiguity
  • retrieval dynamics
  • serial position


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