1874-3501/23 Send Orders for Reprints to email@example.com
DOI: 10.2174/18743501-v16-230223-2022-71, 2023, 16, e187435012301301
The Open Psychology Journal
Content list available at: https://openpsychologyjournal.com
Spatial Descriptions Eliminate the Serial Position Effect
Ilaria Santoro1, Fabrizio Sors1, Serena Mingolo1, Valter Prpic2,3, Tiziano Agostini1 and Mauro Murgia1,*
1Department of Life Sciences, University of Trieste, Trieste 34138, Italy
2Department of Philosophy and Communication Studies, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy
3Institute for Psychological Science, De Montfort University, Leicester, United Kingdom
The present study aims to investigate the occurrence of the serial position effect in the recall of items verbally presented in three different contexts.
The serial position effect has been studied with both verbal (e.g., words) and visuospatial (e.g., locations) stimuli but not with verbal-spatial stimuli
(i.e., spatial description of an environment). In particular, a spatial description of an environment has both spatial information and a meaningful
The objective of the present study is to determine whether the use of different contexts (namely, a classic word list, a spatial description of a room,
and a narrative without spatial information) can alter the serial position effect.
Depending on the condition, participants were exposed to a) a list of objects, b) a spatial description of a room containing the same objects; c) a
narrative presenting the same objects in lack of spatial information. After this learning phase, participants performed a recognition task.
The recognition task revealed different accuracy distributions in the three conditions. In particular, in the spatial description condition, the accuracy
distribution did not change across the item position.
This result is in line with previous studies with visuospatial stimuli. Thus, it seems that spatial descriptions are a particular kind of verbal stimuli,
which are encoded similarly to visuospatial stimuli. Overall, these outcomes support the idea that spatial descriptions elicit a spatial representation,
which enhances item retention and eliminates the serial position effect.
Keywords: Spatial description, Serial position, Context, Verbal stimuli, Visuospatial stimuli, Serial position effect.
Article History Received: September 06, 2022 Revised: January 11, 2023 Accepted: January 16, 2023
1.1. Spatial Descriptions Eliminate The Serial Position
Memory for serial order is essential for the management of
high-level cognitive activities , influencing the ability to
recall information independently of the position of the items.
* Address correspondence to this author at the Department of Life Sciences,
University of Trieste, Trieste 34138, Italy; Tel: +39 3404020442;
Cognitive studies have extensively explored the problem of
serial order in different domains, employing different
methodological procedures, and they repeatedly reported
evidence consistent with the serial position effect. The serial
position effect reflects the systematic changes in accuracy
across an item’s position, showing a significantly higher
performance when responding to the first – primacy effect –
and to the last items – recency effect – of a sequence ,
whereas the middle items tend to be forgotten. The presence of
the serial position effect is typically displayed by a U–shape
2 The Open Psychology Journal, 2023, Volume 16 Santoro et al.
curve when plotting the recall accuracy as a function of the
serial order of the items .
An extensive amount of evidence has demonstrated the
occurrence of the serial position effect in different situations
involving the employment of verbal materials, such as letters
and words [3 - 5]. According to Hurlstone et al. , the main
use of verbal material in research dealing with the serial
position effect may be due to the easy wayof handling, that is,
building, manipulating and testing verbal material compared to
non–verbal material. On the other hand, it is possible that
memory functions are sensitive to the stimulus domain ,
showing different results in the non–verbal domain. As for
non–verbal material, there are controversial results in studies
using visuospatial stimuli.
Comparing verbal and visuospatial material has not
provided well-established and consistent results. Indeed, Cortis
et al.  found the same effect of serial order for both verbal
and visuospatial material, claiming that different results across
modalities found in previous studies could depend on the
not–uniform methods used [8 - 10]. Thus, their findings seem
in line with the assumption of Guérard and Tremblay , who
proposed a functional equivalence of serial recall, suggesting
that the serial order may be elaborated in similar ways across
the domains . However, despite providing encouraging
results, some critical points in previous studies should be
considered. In a study by Cortis et al. , the overall accuracy
differed between verbal and visuospatial stimuli, and primacy
and recency effects were weaker for visuospatial than for
verbal stimuli. Moreover, Hurlstone et al.  highlighted that
the serial position effect is well–established in the verbal
domain. At the same time, further investigation is necessary for
the visuospatial domain due to not totally clear results. Thus, it
seems that the serial position effect is more pronounced in the
verbal domain compared to the visuospatial domain .
It is interesting to note that in the visuospatial domain,
different types of material were used to test the serial order
influence, such as sequences of visuospatial locations [9, 13,
14], visuospatial movements [15, 16], and routes navigation
[17, 18]. A multitude of different stimuli employed, but to the
best of our knowledge; no study has investigated whether a
verbal–spatial type of stimuli would determine the same pattern
of results. In particular, there is no evidence clarifying whether
the memory recall of items in a spatial description (i.e., verbal
description of an environment) is affected by the serial order
differently from the recall of items in a classic word list.
Previous evidence in spatial literature suggests that an
environment verbally described is spatially, and not textually,
encoded and fosters the development of a mental representation
with the spatial characteristics described [19 - 21]. Moreover,
spatial descriptions seem to be functionally equivalent to
directly perceived scenes since they preserve metric
information and structural coherence . Previous studies
suggest that serial order is more bound to verbal than spatial
information in working memory , and that spatial
information is strategically chunked in local spatial
configuration . Consequently, when encoding a spatial
description, we can expect two main scenarios. On the one
hand, the spatial description is encoded as verbal information
and will then rely on the serial position order; in this case, it
would be exposed more easily to serial position effects. On the
other hand, if the spatial description is encoded as spatial
information, it will be unbound to serial order and more prone
to other organization strategies. Thus, if the spatial description
is encoded as spatial material, we should expect a response to
serial order different from that typically shown by verbal
Concreteness is an important factor that typically affects
the recall of verbal items in a serial order. Empirical evidence
has demonstrated that concreteness and other features of the
language, such as word frequency and lexical status, affect the
number of items successfully recalled . According to the
authors, concreteness seems to foster memory processes since
representations of concrete items contain more information
than those of abstract items. In particular, concreteness
strengthens item memories and consequently leaves time and
resources available to process serial orders. This effect can be
interpreted according to Paivio’s dual coding theory ,
which assumes that concrete words maintain both a verbal and
an imagistic code. Moreover, it is consistent with the idea that
using different types of information sources leads to better
performance . The concreteness of the items might be
enhanced by including them in a meaningful context; indeed, it
has been demonstrated that items are better recalled in a
meaningful context than in a list [27, 28]. According to
Brodsky et al. , the logical structure which joins items
seems to have a crucial role in organizing memory processes.
Based on our analysis, spatial coding and meaningful
context are the two factors that might determine a different
serial position effect for items encoded in a spatial description
than in a word list. Indeed, the spatial description provides
information relative to the spatial relations between the
described objects. Moreover, the described objects are included
in a meaningful context, enhancing the ability to visualize the
described environment mentally. Therefore, both the spatial
coding and meaningful context characterise the spatial
description. In order to determine the “pure” influence of
spatial coding on the serial position effect of items included in
a spatial description, it is necessary to test the occurrence of the
serial position effect on items described within a meaningful
narrative, which provides no spatial information.
The present study aims to investigate the occurrence of the
serial position effect in the recall of items verbally presented in
three different contexts: a classic word list, a spatial description
of a room and a narrative without spatial information. We
expect different accuracy distributions across item positions for
the three contexts. In particular, we hypothesise that the spatial
description will be encoded as spatial material, reducing the
influence of the serial order and consequently determining a
flattened U–shaped curve. Moreover, we hypothesise that the
accuracy distribution for the spatial description will be
different from the accuracy distribution for the narrative
without spatial information.
Spatial Description And Serial Position The Open Psychology Journal, 2023, Volume 16 3
Seventy–five university students (M = 19; F = 56)
participated in this experiment in exchange for academic
credits. Their age varied from 19 to 51 (M = 22; SD = 4.9). All
participants were native Italian speakers. All participants
reported that their psychophysiological state was not affected
by alcohol consumption or insufficient sleep in the last 24 hr
. The participants signed the informed consent before
starting the experiment. Participants were naive as to the
purpose of the experiment.
2.2. Experimental Design
We employed an experimental design with two
independent variables: Context (between subjects) and Position
(within subjects). As regards Context, participants were
randomly assigned to three conditions: List (L), Spatial (S),
and Narrative (N). The Context variable refers to the context in
which fifteen objects were verbally described in the learning
phase. Indeed, in the List condition, participants listened to a
list of fifteen objects; in the Spatial condition, participants
listened to the description of a fictitious room containing the
same fifteen objects described in the list; in the Narrative
condition, participants listened to a meaningful narrative, in
which the fifteen objects are described in a non–spatial context.
The Position variable refers to the position of the fifteen
objects described in the three contexts. Indeed, the position of
each object was kept unchanged across the three Context
conditions. To effectively investigate the shape of the serial
position effect, the variable position was rendered discrete with
three levels. The fifteen objects were grouped into five clusters
of three objects each. Then, the Initial condition refers to the
first three objects (1–3), the Central condition refers to the
three central objects (7–9), and the Final condition refers to the
final three objects (13–15).
To provide participants with auditory information
(narratives description and testing trials), we employed a
notebook connected with Sennheiser HD515 headphones. The
same notebook, running E–Prime 2 Software, was used to
generate trials and perform the task.
2.4. Stimuli Generation
We chose fifteen words that were comparable in terms of
both frequency use in the Italian language and the number of
letters. According to the experimental design, we manipulated
the context in which the fifteen objects were presented. In the
List condition, the fifteen words were presented in a sequence,
as for example, “carpet, pillow, backpack, […]”. Differently, in
the other two Context conditions, the same words were
included in a verbal description. Specifically, in the Spatial
condition, the words were included in the spatial description of
a room. This kind of description included spatial coordinates
for each object and the spatial relation between two
subsequential objects, for example “at the right corner, above
the carpet on the floor, there is a pillow and a backpack [...]”.
Conversely, in the Narrative condition, the words were part of
a story. This story described the objects in the room concerning
their role in the narrative, rather than to spatial information, as
for example, “I lie down on the carpet, leaning my head on the
pillow and facing the backpack [...]”. The total number of
words in the spatial description and narrative was analogous. In
a pilot study, we tested the appropriateness of the descriptions
provided. In particular, we tested the text comprehension
difficulty in the spatial description and narrative; moreover,
only for the spatial description, we asked participants to
evaluate the ease in mentally representing the room described.
The results confirmed the appropriateness of the description
Both the list of words and the verbal descriptions were read
by an experimenter and recorded. The time between two
subsequent words was comparable across the three Context
conditions to avoid any possible confounding effect of time.
The experimental procedure consisted of learning, in
which, depending on the condition, participants listened to the
context (either in the list or in the descriptions), and a testing
phase, in which participants performed an old/new recognition
Before beginning the learning phase, participants read and
signed the informed consent. Then they were accompanied into
a silent, dimly lit room, positioned comfortably on a chair in
front of a computer, and asked to wear the headphones. The
duration of the learning phase differed across the Context
conditions, since participants were exposed to the fifteen
objects described within three different contexts. In the List
context, they listened to a serial list of the objects; in the
Spatial context, they listened to a verbal description of objects
with precise spatial coordinates; in the Narrative context, they
listened to a story that featured each object in a narrative.
Before listening to the contexts, in all the conditions,
participants were asked to listen to the stimuli carefully and to
memorize them. No information was provided to participants
as regards the subsequent task.
The testing phase started immediately after the learning
phase. As soon as the list or the descriptions ended, participants
were asked to observe the monitor and read the instructions
explaining the following old/new recognition task. The task
required participants to decide whether the acoustically
provided words were old or new by pressing two alternative
keys on the keyboard. There were thirty words: fifteen of them
were the names of new objects, and the other fifteen were the
names of the objects previously heard in the learning phase.
Participants were exposed to three repetitions of the words in
random order. After each repetition, participants were allowed
to take a little break. Both accuracy and response times were
1 Fifteen participants were asked to evaluate the comprehension difficulty of both
the narrative and the spatial description by using a 7–point Likert scale (1 meant
“Not comprehensible” and 7 meant “totally comprehensible”). Mean scores of
both the narrative (M = 6; SD = .84) and spatial description (M = 6.3; SD = .72)
were statistically different from the central value of the scale and did not differ
from each other. Similarly, the participants were asked to evaluate the ease in
mentally representing the room (1 meant “very difficult” and 7 meant “very
easy”). The mean score (M = 5.6; SD = .91) was significantly above the central
4 The Open Psychology Journal, 2023, Volume 16 Santoro et al.
Fig. (1). Distribution of accuracy scores across item positions for the list (a), spatial (b) and narrative (c) conditions. Error bars indicate standard
Spatial Description And Serial Position The Open Psychology Journal, 2023, Volume 16 5
Since the experimental procedure combined different types
of stimuli (i.e., word lists and verbal descriptions), we could
not employ the test procedures commonly adopted with one of
the two types of stimuli, such as free or serial recall [31, 32]
and story retell procedure 29, respectively. Free or serial recall
would require participants to autonomously report all the words
they can recall in a list format. This procedure would be
adequate to measure accuracy in the List condition but could
promote memorization if the items are in a list form,
potentially suppressing any effect determined by the Spatial
and Narrative contexts. Similarly, a story retelling procedure
would be suited in the case of the Narrative condition, but it
could as well promote a style of memorization that could
suppress the effect of the Spatial and List contexts. To sum up,
none of these procedures could be adequately applied to all
three contexts. Therefore, to expose participants to the same
test procedure in all conditions, we decided to employ a two
alternative forced choice task [33 - 36].
3. DATA ANALYSIS AND RESULTS
We calculated the proportion of correct responses for each
item and the mean scores between the items belonging to the
Initial, Central and Final conditions for each participant. Since
we were interested in testing the serial position effect
depending on the context in which the items were described,
we considered for analysis only the results obtained for the
words presented during the learning phase, but omitting the
data for the new words.
As regards accuracy, we performed a 3 x 3 (Context x
Position) repeated measures ANOVA, revealing a significant
main effect of Context [F(2, 72) = 11.912; p < .001; η2 = .249],
a main effect of Position, [F(2, 144) = 3.505; p < .05; η2 =
.046], and a significant interaction, [F(4,144) = 5.658; p <
.001; η2 = .136]. Planned contrasts with Bonferroni correction
showed that participants were more accurate in the List and
Spatial conditions than in the Narrative condition (p < .001 and
p < .005, respectively), while the comparison between the List
and Spatial conditions was only marginally significant (p =
.09). Since the interaction reached a significant value, we ran
further statistical analyses to understand the direction of the
effect better; thus, we performed separate analyses for each
Context condition (Fig. 1).
As regards the List condition, a repeated measures
ANOVA for Position showed a significant main effect,
[F(2,48) = 10.012; p < .001; η2 = .294]. Planned contrasts with
Bonferroni correction revealed that participants were more
accurate in the recognition of words in both the Initial and
Final conditions than in the Central condition (p < .001 and p <
.05, respectively), while no difference emerged between the
Initial and Final conditions. Moreover, the statistics showed a
significant quadratic trend, [F(1,24) = 17.155; p < .001; η2
As regards the Spatial condition, we performed repeated
measures ANOVA for Position, which revealed neither a
significant main effect nor a significant quadratic trend.
Finally, in the Narrative condition, we performed a
repeated measures ANOVA for Position, finding a significant
main effect, [F(2,48) = 4.103; p < .05; η2 = .146]. Planned
contrasts with Bonferroni correction revealed no difference
either between the Initial and Central conditions or between the
Central and Final conditions, while accuracy in the Initial
condition was statistically lower than in the Final condition (p
< .01). Moreover, no significant value was found for the
quadratic trend. Instead the data revealed a significant linear
trend, [F(1,24) = 8.048; p < .01; η2 = .251].
3.2. Response Times
As regards response times, we performed a 3 x 3 (Context
x Position) repeated measures ANOVA, which revealed neither
significant main effects nor significant interaction.
In the present study, we aimed to investigate whether the
occurrence of the serial position effect changes in the recall of
items verbally presented in three different contexts. We
expected different accuracy distributions across item positions
for items described in the three contexts. In particular, we
hypothesised a different accuracy distribution for the items
when they were presented in the spatial description compared
to the list and the narrative description. The results confirmed
As for the accuracy scores, we found a significant
influence of the context on the overall accuracy, with generally
higher performances for participants in the spatial condition.
Moreover, interesting results emerged when data was examined
separately for each Context condition. Consistent with the
serial position literature , participants who listened to the list
of words showed a significant decrease in accuracy for items in
the central position of the list, confirming the occurrence of the
typical serial position effect for word lists. Furthermore, the
quadratic trend further confirmed the occurrence of the serial
position effect, as shown by the U–shaped accuracy curve.
Conversely, a different pattern of results was found for the
Spatial condition. Indeed, the performance of participants who
listened to the spatial description did not significantly change
as a function of the position of the items, keeping a high
accuracy score in each item position. The lack of the serial
position effect might be due either to the meaningful context or
to the spatial features; however, data from the narrative
condition demonstrated that a meaningful context does not
elicit the maintenance of high accuracy scores across item
positions. Indeed, differently from the spatial description, the
performance of the participants who listened to the narrative
gradually increased as a function of the position of items, as
confirmed by the significant linear trend. Therefore, we can
attribute the high accuracy scores across item positions (and
consequently the absence of the U–shaped curve) in the spatial
condition to the spatial features of the verbal description.
As for the narrative condition, the linear increment in
performance towards the last items differs greatly from the
serial position effect usually observed in list recall. In this case,
we observed no primacy effect, while the recency effect seems
to be driving the observed trend. We could attribute this result
to the nature of the narrative itself. Different from lists, in
6 The Open Psychology Journal, 2023, Volume 16 Santoro et al.
which each item is separated by a brief pause, in the narrative,
the story is continuous and does not allow the participants to
reiterate the first items heard. This lack of reiteration might
account for the lack of primacy effect observed in this case.
As for response times, we did not find significant results.
However, in the analyses of the serial position effect the role of
response times seemed to be less important than that played by
accuracy. Previous studies on the serial position effect focused
mainly on accuracy scores, suggesting that accuracy might
better stress the potential effects related to the serial order of
items. Indeed, many studies did not even report the results of
the response times .
Overall, the results of the present study indicate that the
accuracy distribution is affected by the serial order of the items
depending on the context in which the items are presented.
Consistent with our expectations, the spatial description
provides a spatial framework in which the objects are encoded,
overcoming the cognitive limitations determining the serial
position effect. Thus, our results are in line with the assumption
that spatial descriptions are encoded as spatial information
. Indeed, the accuracy distribution after the exposure to
spatial descriptions is similar to that found for visuospatial
material in previous studies, showing weaker primacy and
recency effects than for verbal stimuli [7, 12].
Thus, our data indicate that spatial descriptions are
unbound to the serial order of the items and are more prone to
other strategies of the organization, such as imagery strategies
(see ). According to this interpretation, we might claim that
the spatial descriptions behave like visuospatial stimuli, even
though they belong to the verbal domain.
The performances obtained by participants while listening
to the spatial description can be explained by the Dual Coding
Theory , which postulates the occurrence of at least two
coding systems, a verbal system and a non–verbal system.
According to this theory, spatial descriptions might be coded
by both the verbal and non–verbal systems, as they contain
both a verbal and a non–verbal (e.g., visuospatial)
characterization. Consequently, the spatial descriptions are
memorized both in a verbal and a non–verbal form, causing the
occurrence of two separate – but connected – memory traces.
Similarly, although both systems should memorize the
meaningful narratives (without spatial information), however,
the different accuracy distributions of spatial descriptions and
narratives could be attributed to the non–verbal system. Indeed,
it is plausible that the spatial features of the spatial descriptions
determine stronger visuospatial memory traces compared to
those elicited by the narratives. Alternatively, our results can
be explained by Johnson-Laird’s Mental Model Theory [37,
38]. In this case, the spatial features of the spatial description
determine a spatial mental model of the text , which is
probably more effective than the mental model evoked by the
In conclusion, the present study provides evidence
demonstrating that the effect of the serial order of items
changes depending on the context in which items are described.
Whereas the word list determined a decreased accuracy for
central items, a linear performance increment (from initial to
final items) was observed when items were described in a
meaningful narrative. Conversely, accuracy remained stable at
high levels when items were described spatially, suggesting
that spatial descriptions are processed like visuospatial stimuli,
even though they originate in the verbal domain. Therefore, our
results align with the assumption that the verbal description of
an environment could lead to the development of a spatial
mental representation, which facilitates item memorization and
reduces the serial position effect. Overall, these results add an
important piece of information regarding the mechanisms
based on the mental processing of described environments [40,
ETHICS APPROVAL AND CONSENT TO
The present experiment was conducted with the approval
of the University of Trieste Ethics Committee (minutes no.
HUMAN AND ANIMAL RIGHTS
No animals were used for studies that are the basis of this
research. All the humans were used in accordance with the
ethical standards of the committee responsible for human
experimentation (institutional and national) and with the
Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2013
CONSENT FOR PUBLICATION
Informed consent for publication was provided by all
STANDARDS OF REPORTING
STROBE guidelines were followed.
AVAILABILITY OF DATA AND MATERIALS
The data that support the findings of this study are
available on request from the corresponding author [M.M].
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The authors declare no conflicts of interest, financial or
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