Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 237–255

Instability in memory phenomena: A common puzzle and a unifying explanation

Theoretical and Review Articles

DOI: 10.3758/PBR.15.2.237

Cite this article as:
McDaniel, M.A. & Bugg, J.M. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (2008) 15: 237. doi:10.3758/PBR.15.2.237


In mixed lists, stable free recall advantages are observed for encoding conditions that are unusual, bizarre, or attract extensive individual item elaboration relative to more common encoding conditions; but this recall advantage is often eliminated or reversed in pure lists. We attempt to explain this ubiquitous memory puzzle with an item-order account that assumes that (1) free recall of unrelated lists depends on order and item information; (2) unusual items attract greater individual item-processing but disrupt order encoding regardless of list composition; and (3) list composition determines differences in order encoding across unusual and common items. We show that the item-order account provides a unifying explanation of five memory phenomena for which the requisite data exist. The account also successfully anticipates pure-list reversals, in which the standard mixed-list recall pattern is obtained in pure, structured lists, a finding that competing accounts cannot handle. Extending the item-order account to other “established” recall phenomena may prove fruitful.

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyWashington UniversitySt. Louis

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