Free recall is an important aspect of memory that is dependent on the concreteness of words. The purpose of this study is to investigate the influence of concreteness of words on free recall among psychology students from the university. The study hypothesized that the free recall mean of concrete words is not statistically significantly higher than that of abstract words. To achieve its purpose, the study employed within-subject design by presenting concrete and abstract nouns to psychology students and recording their free recall.
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The findings revealed that the mean free recall of concrete words was statistically significantly higher than that of abstract words. These findings rejected the null hypothesis, and thus, the study concludes that concrete words have a higher free recall because they access both the verbal system and the visual system of the memory and cause a larger response than abstract words. Hence, these findings imply that concreteness of words influences memory of psychology students at the university.
Free recall is an aspect of memory subject to numerous factors that influence cognitive processes. Fundamentally, the nature of words influences free recall, for they undergo different cognitive processes. Jessen et al. (2000) established the process of that cognitive task abstract nouns in a slower and less precise way than concrete nouns. Abstract nouns are words that refer to intangible things that the common senses cannot perceive, while concrete nouns are words that refer to tangible things that the common senses can perceive.
Psychologists have come up with different theories and models to elucidate this differential process and recall of abstract and concrete nouns. The dual-coding theory is one of these theories, holding that concrete nouns access the verbal system and the visual system in the right hemisphere of the brain, while abstract nouns only access the verbal system (Jessen et al., 2000). In support of the dual-coding theory, the context-availability theory holds that concrete nouns stimulate an extensive part of the verbal system, resulting in enhanced cognitive processing when compared to abstract nouns that partially access the verbal system (Fliessbach, Weis, Klaver, Elger, & Weber, 2006).
In this view, it is easier to remember or recall concrete nouns than abstract nouns (Paivio, Khan, & Begg, 2000). Therefore, the purpose of the study is to investigate the influence of concreteness of words on free recall memory among psychology students from the university.
- H0: The free recall mean of concrete nouns is not statistically significantly higher than that of abstract nouns.
- H1: The free recall mean of concrete nouns is statistically significantly higher than that of abstract nouns.
The study used within-subject design, which entails a comparison of the effect of concreteness on free recall memory among the same subjects. The independent variable is the nature of words presented to the participants, while the dependent variable is the number of words recalled by the participants. The nature of the words presented to the participants was classified as either concrete or abstract. According to the classification of words, 15 concrete words and 15 abstract words (Table 1 in Appendix A) were selected and the number of recalled words determined.
The study selected 20 participants (10 Male and 10 Female) from among psychology students at the university. Stratified sampling was used in the selection of participants; the psychology students were divided into male and female students, and then randomly sampled to obtain 10 male and 10 female students.
Stimuli and Materials
The study used 15 concrete nouns and 15 abstract nouns as stimuli to influence free recall among the participants. Concrete nouns are words that refer to tangible things, such as laptop, tablet, and pen, while abstract nouns are words that refer to intangible objects, such as love, freedom, and happiness. In the selection of these words (Table 1 in Appendix A), it was ensured that common and uncommon nouns were mixed to prevent the occurrence of “ceiling” effects and “floor” effects. The PowerPoint software program was used to present these words on a computer, and a mini-game on a mobile phone was used as a distracter in the study.
The participants in the study were sampled from the psychology students at the university. Subsequently, the participants were briefed about the experiment and asked to give their informed consent regarding their participation. The participants were then directed to the venue for the experiment, which was conducted outside of the university library at 3:00 p.m. In the experiment, 10 participants were shown 15 concrete words for 30 seconds and then asked to type the words that they recalled on the computer.
Next, the participants played a mini-game on a mobile phone for 5 minutes to distract them. In the same manner, the participants were shown 15 abstract words for 30 seconds, recall determined, and distracted for 5 minutes. To act as a counterbalance, the remaining 10 participants were shown abstract words first, followed by concrete words, while following the same procedure.
As the study used an experimental design, it complied with the ethical guidelines of voluntary participation and informed consent. The study provided for voluntary participation by giving freedom of choice to psychology students at the university to participate or withdraw from the study at any period without imposing undue coercion or consequences. Moreover, participants were briefed about the study, and allowed to make an informed decision regarding their participation by signing the informed consent form.
Table 2 presents the raw data collected from the experiment done among participants (N = 20) as indicated in Appendix B. To determine if there is a statistically significant difference in free recall of abstract and concrete nouns, the paired-samples t-test in SPSS 20 was used. The descriptive statistics in Table 3 demonstrate that there is an apparent difference in the means of free recall of abstract and concrete nouns. Evidently, descriptive statistics show that free recall of concrete words is higher (M = 11.05, SD = 2.21) than that of abstract words (M = 4.70, SD = 1.84).
A correlation table (Table 4) indicates that concrete and abstract words have a very weak positive correlation, which is statistically insignificant (r = 0.16, p = 0.50). A hypothesis test using a paired-samples t-test (Table 5) rejects the null hypothesis and supports the alternative hypothesis that the mean of free recall of concrete nouns is statistically significantly higher than that of abstract nouns, t(19) = 10.75, p = 0.00. Thus, the descriptive statistics and hypothesis test hold that the free recall mean of concrete nouns is statistically significantly higher (M = 11.05, SD = 2.21) than that of abstract words (M = 4.70, SD = 1.84), t(19) = 10.75, p = 0.00.
The findings of the study do not support the null hypothesis. Fundamentally, the findings indicate that the free recall mean of concrete nouns is statistically significantly higher (M = 11.05, SD = 2.21) than that of abstract words (M = 4.70, SD = 1.84), t(19) = 10.75, p = 0.00. The descriptive statistics provide the expected results, as they show that psychology students can easily recall concrete nouns in contrast to abstract nouns.
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These findings are in line with the expectations, as previous studies have demonstrated that concreteness of words enhances cognitive processes (Fliessbach et al., 2006; Paivio, 2000; Jessen et al., 2000; Barber, Otten, Kousta, & Vigliocco, 2013). As expected, the correlation between free recall of abstract and concrete nouns is very weak and statistically insignificant (r = 0.16, p = 0.05), which implies that participants do not influence the outcome of free recall. In essence, the correlation shows that the outcome of free recall emanates from the treatment, which is the nature of the words presented to the participants.
The findings of the study, that the mean free recall of concrete nouns is more than that of abstract nouns among psychology students, support the findings of previous studies. A study done on the concreteness of emotional words revealed that concrete emotional words not only elicit a larger response but also, the brain processes them faster and more precisely than abstract words (Wang & Yao, 2012).
In their study to determine the effect of concreteness on event-related potential (ERP), Adorni and Proverbio (2012) observed that concrete words cause a stronger activation than abstract words. A related study on concrete effects established that concrete stimuli elicit larger responses (N-400 and N-400) than abstract stimuli do (Barber et al., 2013). In light of the results, these findings suggest that concreteness of words influences cognitive processes through the neural responses that they elicit.
The influence of concreteness of words on the free recall is subject to diverse cognitive processes accessed and elicited by words. The dual-coding theory and the context-availability theory are two theories that elucidate the mechanisms of concreteness effects on free recall. In explaining the dual-coding theory, Jessen et al. (2000) hold that concrete words access both the verbal system and the visual system in the brain and elicit a strong response, resulting in faster and more precise free recall of concrete words than abstract words.
From the perspective of the context-availability theory, Fliessbach et al. (2006) hold that concrete words access an extensive part of the verbal system in the brain and cause greater stimulation of cognitive processes than abstract words. Therefore, the theoretical framework shows that the psychology students recalled a higher number of concrete words than abstract words because of the dual access of the verbal system and the visual system and extensive access to the verbal system by the concrete words.
As a limitation of the study, the findings have low external validity, because the study used a small number of participants with the same demographic attributes. Another limitation is that the findings have low internal validity because the study used a limited number of words, which did not accurately measure concreteness effects.
To improve the validity of the findings, future research should use a larger and more diverse sample that captures individuals across age groups and academic levels. Moreover, future research should redesign the procedure, and include additional words and longer duration of exposure and recall, with a different form of distraction. As the environment might influence free recall, future research should consider replicating the experiment in a laboratory environment and an open environment.
Concreteness of words influences cognitive processes, for it determines the extent of free recall. This study demonstrated that free recall of concrete words is higher than that of abstract words among psychology students. Thus, the findings imply that psychology students can better recall concrete things in their environment than abstract things.
Appendix A: List of Words
Table 1. List of concrete and abstract words used in the study.
|Concrete words||Abstract words|
| ||1. Happiness|
| ||2. Hatred|
| ||3. Justice|
| ||4. Beauty|
| ||5. Anger|
| ||6. Recommend|
| ||7. Democracy|
| ||8. Liberty|
| ||9. Love|
|10. Computer||10. Sadness|
|11. Salad||11. Success|
|12. Fish||12. Freedom|
|13. Keyboard||13. Good|
|14. Speaker||15. Desire|
Appendix B: Raw Data
Table 2. Raw data showing recall scores of concrete and abstract words.
|Participants||Concrete word scores||Abstract word scores|
|1||10 out of 15||6 out of 15|
|2||8 out of 15||5 out of 15|
|3||8 out of 15||3 out of 15|
|4||13 out of 15||5 out of 15|
|5||11 out of 15||6 out of 15|
|6||9 out of 15||6 out of 15|
|7||12 out of 15||8 out of 15|
|8||10 out of 15||3 out of 15|
|9||10 out of 15||5 out of 15|
|10||12 out of 15||5 out of 15|
|11||15 out of 15||6 out of 15|
|12||14 out of 15||4 out of 15|
|13||9 out of 15||7 out of 15|
|14||11 out of 15||5 out of 15|
|15||13 out of 15||2 out of 15|
|16||13 out of 15||7 out of 15|
|17||15 out of 15||4 out of 15|
|18||9 out of 15||4 out of 15|
|19||9 out of 15||1 out of 15|
|20||10 out of 15||2 out of 15|
|NB//Red = counter balanced=abstract word was shown first.|
Appendix C: Results
|Paired Samples Statistics|
|Mean||N||Std. Deviation||Std. Error Mean|
|Pair 1||concrete word||11.05||20||2.212||.495|
|Paired Samples Correlations|
|Pair 1||concrete word & abstract word||20||.159||.503|
|Paired Samples Test|
|Paired Differences||t||df||Sig. (2-tailed)|
|Mean||Std. Deviation||Std. Error Mean||95% Confidence Interval of the Difference|
|Pair 1||concrete word – abstract word||6.350||2.641||.591||5.114||7.586||10.752||19||.000|
Adorni, R., & Proverbio, M. (2012). The neural manifestation of the word concreteness effect: An electrical neuroimaging study. Neuropsychologia, 50(5), 880-891.
Barber, H., Otten, L., Kousta, S., & Vigliocco, G. (2013). Concreteness in word processing: ERP and behavioral effects in a lexical decision task. Brain and Language, 125(1), 47-53.
Fliessbach, K., Weis, S., Klaver, P., Elger, C., & Weber, B. (2006). The effect of word concreteness on recognition memory. Neuroimage, 32(3), 1413-1421.
Jessen, F., Heun, R., Erb, M., Granath, O., Klose, U., Papassotiropoulos, A., & Grodd, W. (2000). The concreteness effect: evidence for dual coding and context availability. Brain and Language, 74(1), 103-112.
Paivio, A., Khan, M., & Begg, I. (2000). Concreteness and relational effects on recall of adjective-noun pairs. Canadian Journal of experimental psychology. 54(3), 149-160.
Wang, Z., & Yao, Z. (2012). Concreteness effects of emotional noun words: evidences from ERP. Acta Psychologica Sinica. 44(2), 154-165.