The animacy advantage for free-recall performance is not attributable to greater mental arousal

Earl Y. Popp, Michael J. Serra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


People often demonstrate better memory for animate concepts (e.g., lion and sailor) than for inanimate concepts (e.g., hammer and mountain). Researchers have attributed this effect to an adaptive memory mechanism that favours information relevant for survival, including information about living things. In the present experiment, we examined the hypothesis that people demonstrate better free-recall performance for animate than inanimate words because animate words tend to be associated with greater mental arousal than inanimate words, a factor that was not controlled for in previous experiments on this topic. To this end, we matched animate and inanimate word lists on mental arousal (and several other factors), and compared participants’ free-recall performance for the two word types. We were able to replicate past findings that participants’ free-recall of animate words exceeds their free-recall of inanimate words, but we found no support for the possibility that the effect stems from differences in mental arousal between animate and inanimate concepts, as this effect maintained even when the word lists were matched on mental arousal. The present results therefore indicate that mental arousal cannot explain the effects of animacy on free-recall performance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)89-95
Number of pages7
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2018


  • Animacy
  • adaptive memory
  • evolutionary psychology
  • free-recall
  • mental arousal


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