Information Relevance and Recognition Memory: First, Second, and Third Person Narratives
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
LUCK, B.P. (1999). Information Relevance and Recognition Memory: First, Second, and Third Person Narratives. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 2. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Information Relevance and Recognition Memory: First, Second, and Third Person Narratives

Sponsored by: JANIE WILSON (
Storytelling results in better factual recall of material than non-narrative presentation, but its effectiveness is not absolute; personal identification and personal relevance also affect comprehension. Thirty-three undergraduate students heard a story presented in one of three narrative voices: first-person, second-person, or third-person presentation. They then completed a twenty-item test of detail recognition and two Likert-type scales evaluating ease of visualization and understanding of the material. It was hypothesized that participants exposed to the second-person narrative would recall more than those exposed to first-person or third-person presentations. Results indicated that personal relevance, as operationalized in this study, did not cause better recall or easier visualization and understanding of material. This lack of significance could be due to an insufficient manipulation of personal relevance through narrative voice, unfamiliarity of material, or an order effect of items on the questionnaire.

Oral narration (or storytelling) has been used for centuries across many cultures as an educational tool in and out of the classroom (McCabe, 1997) because it promotes motivation, comprehension, and memory (Fernald, 1996). The prototypical American narrative has several definitive characteristics which distinguish it from expository or non-narrative text, namely: a goal-directed orientation, characters and a setting, an inciting incident followed by one or more episodes which provide linear or chronological responses to the initial event, and a clear ending or resolution for the episodes (Naremore, 1997; Trabasso & Van Den Broek, 1985). Narrative representations following this basic structure are easier to understand and remember than non- narrative means of providing and storing information (Trabasso & Van Den Broek; Farrell, 1985). According to Sarbin (1986), when a person is presented with several unrelated pictures, he or she will find associations between them to create a narrative structure. Because of this automatic process, narrative structure is considered to be one of the basic tenets of human communication and comprehension (Farrell, 1985). There are several explanations for the effectiveness of narrative techniques. Lang (1989) suggests that narratives provide information in a linear form which is easier to process than nonlinear presentations. In a recent study, participants who watched newscasts presented in a chronological (narrative) form exhibited better recollections of the presented information than participants who were exposed to non-chronological newscasts (Lang, 1989). Thus narratives appear to promote better recall than expository presentations by means of linear presentation. Chronological form does not appear to be the only reason for the cognitive advantage provided by narrative presentation, however. Subjective experience of the story also appears to play a role in memory acquisition. For instance, students who were presented with textbook information presented in non-narrative, quasi-narrative, and explicitly narrative forms rated the narrative texts as more enjoyable and educationally useful than the non-narratives (Fernald, 1987). Fernald (1987) proposes that this preference could also lead to better comprehension of the material. Familiarity also appears to play a role in memory acquisition. In a study on familiarity and memory, participants who exhibited expert knowledge about a specific radio soap-opera read one of two scripts (Reeve & Aggleton, 1998). One script was typical of the soap-opera`s episodes, employing familiar characters and plot lines, while the other script was atypical. When the expert participants read the atypical script, they remembered the same number of details from the script as non-experts, but when experts read the typical (familiar) script, they remembered more script details. Reeve and Aggleton (1998) suggest that experts had a higher level of interest for the familiar script, which resulted in a more comprehensive recollection of the material. Thus, familiarity appears to play an important role in memory acquisition. Personal relevance and personal identification also appear to impact perception and comprehension of narratives. In a recent study, 20 males and 20 females wrote detailed descriptions of personal events, imagining themselves in an active (protagonist`s) role throughout their narratives( Velasco & Bond, 1998). These scripts were matched in every aspect except personal relevance to a standard (non-relevant) script. Several weeks later, the participants heard (through audio presentation) both the relevant and the non-relevant narratives, and their physiological and emotional responses were monitored. Results indicated that when participants were presented with personally constructed scripts, they showed more physiological involvement (measured by the skin conductance level) than when they were presented with standard non-relevant scripts, even though both types of narratives contained similar sensory and emotional cues (anger- and/or anxiety-provoking). In addition, participants reported higher levels of emotional involvement and reported significant decreases in feelings of relaxation, calmness, tranquility, and peacefulness when exposed to personally constructed (thus, relevant) scripts. Participants also reported stronger feelings of vividness and control of images when they envisioned a personally relevant narrative than when they visualized a non-relevant scenario (Velasco & Bond, 1998). This indicates that personal relevance plays an important role in the physiological and emotional involvement of hearing a narrative (Velasco & Bond, 1998). Similarly, a case study analyzed the effect of personal relevance and self-identification on written narrative comprehension by examining the level of reading engagement actualized by "Molly," an eleven-year-old student (Enciso, 1996). When Molly saw herself as similar to the protagonist of a story, she found the text relevant to her own life and engaged herself as the author of the narrative. This personal involvement was indicated by her animated reading and her use of role-playing characters as she read the story aloud. Furthermore, in an exercise in which Molly used various paper cutouts to depict certain scenes in a chapter, she used more cutouts representing herself in the scene when she resonated with the text than when she felt she had nothing in common with the characters (Enciso, 1996). This personal involvement resulted in a more comprehensive understanding of the story as well as a more complete memory of the presented information (Enciso, 1996). In contrast, when Molly could not identify with the protagonist or the situations in the story, she withdrew her personal involvement and exhibited a reduced comprehension and retention of the material (Enciso, 1996). Thus, personal relevance and identification appear to be an important part of memory acquisition. In the present study, the effects of personal relevance on story comprehension and retention were examined by using different narrative voices to present information. Narratives ranged from least relevant (third-person story presentation, with an abstract protagonist) to somewhat relevant (first-person presentation, with the experimenter as protagonist) to most relevant (second-person presentation, with participants imagining themselves to be the protagonists). It was hypothesized that participants exposed to the second-person narrative would report greater ease in understanding and envisioning the material than participants exposed to less relevant narratives. By the same token, participants who heard the first-person narrative were expected to report greater ease in understanding and visualizing the story than those exposed to the third-person condition. Furthermore, participants who heard the second- person presentation were expected to score higher on a recognition test than participants exposed to the less personally relevant narratives, and those in the first-person condition were expected to score higher than participants exposed to the third-person narrative.


Thirty-three students attending research-methods and statistics classes at a southeastern university participated in this study. Participants consisted of 27 females and 6 males between the ages of 19 and 43 years. The mean age of participants was 22.85, and mean GPA was 2.96.

After completing informed-consent forms, participants heard a five-minute story read aloud by the experimenter in one of three narrative voices: first-person, second-person, or third- person presentation. A twenty-item, multiple-choice test was subsequently distributed to evaluate memory of story details. In addition, participants completed three Likert-type scales. The first scale measured participants` ratings of ease in understanding the material on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 indicating a "very easy" understanding of the story and 6 representing a "very difficult" understanding of the material. The second scale evaluated ease in envisioning the material, also on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 representing "very easy" envisioning of the material, and 6 representing "very difficult" envisioning. The third Likert-type scale was employed as a manipulation check for the IV. This scale evaluated participants` ratings of identification with the narrative`s main character on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 indicating that the participant "did not [identify with the main character] at all" and 6 representing "a lot" of identification. This scale was administered to ensure that narrative voice was a valid manipulator of personal relevance. After all materials were collected, participants were debriefed and thanked for their time.

Four one-way, between-subjects ANOVAs were used to analyze the these data. Narrative voice did not affect scores on a recognition test, F(2,30)=.43, p>.05. Exposure to a first-person narrative (M=13.13, SEM=1.06), second-person narrative (M=14.21, SEM=.54), and third- person narrative (M=13.18, SEM=1.35) resulted in similar scores. (See Figure 1). Similarly, narrative voice did not affect ease of understanding, F(2,30)=1.95, p>.05. Hearing a first-person narrative (M=1.13, SEM=.13), second-person narrative (M=1.14, SEM=.10), and third-person narrative (M=1.82, SEM=.46) caused similar scores in ease of understanding. Neither did narrative voice affect ease of visualization, F(2,30)=.95, p>.05. Exposure to a first-person narrative (M=1.88, SEM=.52), second-person narrative (M=1.43, SEM=.44), and third-person narrative (M=2.09, SEM=.48) caused similar ratings of ease in envisioning the material. Finally, an analysis of the manipulation check indicated that narrative style did not affect the degree of personal identification reported, F(2,30)= 1.58, p>.05. Exposure to a first-person narrative (M=4.38, SEM=.38), second-person narrative (M=3.64,SEM=.44), and third-person narrative (M=3.18,SEM=.42) caused similar ratings of identification.

Narrative style did not affect recognition memory of presented material. One explanation for the lack of a main effect could be that narrative voice did not affect the degree of personal identification with the main character (as indicated by the manipulation check). This suggests that the IV, as operationalized in this study, was not a valid manipulator of personal relevance. Prior studies manipulated personal relevance by requiring participants to construct their own narratives or by asking them to select personally relevant stories (Velasco & Bond, 1998; Enciso, 1996). Velasco and Bond (1998) relied on narratives constructed by participants to manipulate personal relevance in their study. Similarly, Enciso (1996) asked Molly to choose a story on the basis of personal identification before evaluating her comprehension of the material. In the present study, it was assumed that personal relevance would be established by requesting the participant to imagine himself or herself in the role of the main character (indicated by the second-person narrative voice). Future studies should take similar measures to manipulate personal relevance. In addition, in the present study, the material presented was unfamiliar to the participants, possibly reducing their perception of personal relevance. Just as the experts in Reeve and Aggleton`s (1998) study did not score higher than non-experts when presented with an atypical script, participants exposed to the second-person narrative in the present study may have produced similar scores to the other participants because the information provided was unfamiliar. Future studies should ensure that the material presented is personally relevant to the participants. A lack of significant results was also associated with the effect of narrative voice on the ease of understanding the material. This could be due to an order effect of items on the questionnaire. Likert-type scales were presented after the memory test, and participants` perceptions of how well they performed on the recognition test may have influenced the way they rated subjective ease in understanding the material. Similarly, no significant results were associated with narrative voice and ease of envisioning the story. Again, this could be the result of an order effect. Future studies should administer Likert-type scales before the recognition task to eliminate this effect.

Enciso, P. (1996) . Why engagement in reading matters to Molly. Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties,12, 171-194. Farrell, T.B. (1985) . Narrative in natural discourse: On conversation and rhetoric. Journal of Communication, 35,(4), 109-127. Fernald, D. (1996) . Heads and tales in introductory psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 23(3), 150-158. Fernald, L.D. (1987) . Of windmills and rope dancing: The instructional value of narrative structures. Teaching of Psychology, 14(4), 214-216. Lang, A. (1989) . The effects of chronological presentation of information on processing and memory for broadcast news. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 33(4), 441-452. McCabe, A. (1997) . Cultural background and storytelling: A review and implications for schooling. The Elementary School Journal, 97(5), 453-473. Naremore, R.C. (1997) . Making it hang together: Children`s use of mental frameworks to structure narratives. Topics in Language Disorders,18(1), 16-31. Reeve, D.K. & Aggleton, J.P. (1998) . On the specificity of expert knowledge about a soap opera: An everyday story of farming folk. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12(1), 35-42. Sarbin, T. (1986) . Narrative psychology: The storied nature of human conduct. New York: Praeger. Trabasso, T. & Van Den Broek, P. (1985) . Causal thinking and the representation of narrative events. Journal of Memory and Language, 24, 612-630. Velasco, C. & Bond, A. (1998) . Personal relevance is an important dimension for visceral reactivity in emotional imagery. Cognition and Emotion,12(2), 231-242.

Submitted 1/21/99 10:19:41 AM
Last Edited 1/21/99 10:27:17 AM
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