Memory & Cognition

, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp 383–394 | Cite as

Adaptive memory: Animacy, threat, and attention in free recall

  • Juliana K. LedingEmail author


Animate items are better remembered than inanimate items, suggesting that human memory systems evolved in a way to prioritize memory for animacy. The proximate mechanisms responsible for the animacy effect are not yet known, but several possibilities have been suggested in previous research, including attention capture, mortality salience, and mental arousal (Popp & Serra in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42, 186-201, 2016). Perceived threat of items could be related to any of these three potential proximate mechanisms. Because the characteristic of animacy is sometimes confounded with the perceived threat of the animate items, and because threatening items are often more likely to capture attention (e.g., Blanchette in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59, 1484–1504, 2006), a norming study was first conducted to aid in the creation of lists of threatening and non-threatening animate and inanimate items. Two experiments were then conducted to determine if the animacy effect persisted regardless of the threat level of the items. The first experiment demonstrated the typical animacy advantage as well as a memory advantage for threatening items. The second experiment replicated these results across three successive recall tests as well as in both full attention and divided attention conditions. The results are discussed with respect to the potential proximate mechanisms of attention capture, mortality salience, and mental arousal.


Animacy Episodic memory Attention Survival advantage Threat 

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of North FloridaJacksonvilleUSA

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