Experiment on Semantic Categorization

Three participants ages 19, 19, and 20 were asked to listen to three lists of words whose contents ranged from low to high association. The low-association list was defined by words that had no particular relation to each other. Conversely, the high-association list was characterized by words that had very close relationships with each other, whereas the in-between list of medium association contained words among which loose relationships existed. Each list contained ten words. The three lists were read to each participant in a slow and systematic way, leaving an interval of approximately one second between the calling of each word. Each participant was then given a minute to write down as many words as they could recall.

The average number of words remembered from the low-association list was three (3), which represents a low level of recall for short term memory. This is consistent with the idea that the brain employs a short-term memory system that is able to hold limited information, and this can be done for only a short time without the aid of semantic prompters (Brown et al., 1985). The group of words on the low-association list contained almost no semantic prompters, as these words belonged to no specific category that could have been called up in the schema of the persons involved in the experiment.


As a result, the first few words called in each list allowed the participants no leeway to use schema as a mnemonic device for recalling them. Relying therefore only on short-term memory, the participants were able only to remember a small portion of the words. It is also important to note that those which were remembered were the ones located near the end of the list. This indicates that the effort to remember those later words nullified any earlier efforts made at memorization, and consequently removed the earlier words from the participants’ short-term memory.

The second list of words containing a limited number of related words (medium association) showed a recall level for the participants of approximately six (6) words. The final two words on the list were recalled by two of the participants, and the other recalled the last word. However, the few words on the list that were related were universally recalled by the participants. The experiment apparently enabled them to make connections among the related words and to further connect them to a category in their schemata.

This occurrence points to the tendency of the mind to categorize the information it receives, and the long-term memory of these participants appears to have been activated by associating the related words to their appropriate category. This categorization is most likely the factor that aided the short term memory of the participants, allowing them to recall a greater percentage of the words (almost twice as many) than they were able to recall from the first list.

The third list contained words that were all highly related to each other. The experiment demonstrated even more the extent to which semantic categorization has the ability to aid short-term memory. The participants remembered an average of approximately nine (9) words on the list. This represents a vast increase over the previous two tries. This part of the experiment indicates the participants appeal to their long term memory as an aid in memorizing the contents of this list.

For instance, despite the fact that the words on the low-association list were familiar words, their ability to remember them was compromised by the fact that they had no method of selecting them from all the other things that reside in their memories. Conversely, the fact that the words from the third experiment were all members of a particular category allowed these participants to use the taxonomic feature of long-term memory to aid recall in this memory experiment (Brown et al., 1985). The parallel trend of increased remembrance alongside increased association therefore underlines the importance of schema in the enhancement of memory.


Brown, A. S., S. L. Whiteman, R. J. Cattoi & C. K. Bradley. (1985). “Associative strength level           and retrieval inhibition in semantic memory.” The American Journal of Psychology.   98(3):  421-432.


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