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Effect of Hand Movements and Word Valence on Memory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 3707 words Published: 26th Jul 2021

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This study examined the effect of both hand movements and valence of words on memory (free recall, recognition, and item source recognition) with hopes of finding an interaction effect between the two. 278 undergraduates from the University of Wisconsin-Madison participated in the study. Participants were assigned to different hand movement groups: gesture, beats, and none. All participants viewed a slideshow containing 54 words of different valences (negative, neutral, positive) and colors (blue or yellow). Participants remembered and recalled more words when they were emotional words. Participants in the gesture group remembered more words than beats and no hand movement, however, there was no interaction effect between the hand movement and valence. Thus, the findings support previous literature regarding to enhanced memory due to either hand movements or valence of words.

Keywords: gesture, emotional valence, memory

Interaction Effect of Hand Movement and Valence of Words on Memory

In cognitive psychology, studies regarding valence and arousal of words and memory are easily found (Doerksen and Shimamura, 2001; Kensinger and Corkin, 2003).  Valence refers to the intrinsic attractiveness (positive valence) or averseness (negative valence) of a word (Frijda, 1986). Arousal, in this case, refers to the ability of the word to arouse the alertness of the participant. The most commonly studied memory aspects are free recall and recognition where free recall is the ability to remember without any outside influence and recognition is the ability to remember whether the participant saw the word or not.

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Alone these studies do not tell much, however, together they tell an interesting story. In this story, the first chapter would be biological processes. Kissler, Herbert, Peyk, and Junghofer (2007) set out to determine if early stages of word processing are intensified due to emotional content. In their study participants were shown blocks of 180 words (60 high-arousal unpleasant, 60 high-arousal pleasant, 60 low-arousal neutral) in random order at speeds of 1 Hz per word and 3 Hz per word. The participants had EEG electrodes attached to them to measure their brain activity upon seeing each word. Kissler et al. also administered a surprise free recall test to measure whether emotional words were remembered more often. They found that emotionally significant words are reflected in the extrastriate negativities in the brain with no difference between positive or negative. They also found that participants recalled more words with emotional connotations with no distinction between positive and negative. In conclusion, their results suggest that the impact of words with emotional connotations has a physiological basis (Kissler et al. 2007).

This information is taken a step further by implementing it in actual memory tests. Kensinger and Corkin (2003) mention that much of the previous research on emotional valence and memory used pictures. To create a more controllable study they used words. In their first experiment, they tested to see that if participants remember negative words more than neutral words. Their results indicated that negative words were remembered more often than neutral words. In their fourth experiment they tested to see to what extent does valence and arousal contribute to source memory. Their results indicated that both enhance source memory, but the arousal level is a more significant factor. Both of these experiments highlight that emotional and arousing words lead to stronger memory.

These previous findings are a contradiction to some past research according to Doerksen and Shimamura (2001). In their study, they stated past research shows that heightened emotion can impair memories (Brewin, 1997). This is not what Doerksen and Shimamura found. In addition, they contradicted the item-source tradeoff theory which is the decrease in source memory as a result of enhanced item memory. In their study, participants were assigned to either a set of 32 emotional words (16 positive, 16 negative) or 32 neutral words. The words were either in blue or yellow print. In their second experiment they displaced the source information by surrounding the black background in either blue or black. Their results indicated that source memory was better in both studies for emotionally valenced words. In addition, item memory was not enhanced by emotional words which lead to the conclusion that the results do not support the item-source tradeoff theory (Doerksen and shimamura, 2001). The combination of the first three studies is important because it illustrates the idea that there is an undeniable link between emotional words and memory.

Together, these three studies argue a good case for how emotional content is remember better. This leads to researchers wondering how they can expand the topic. In a different study, Frick-Horbury (2002) set out to test the effects of gesture cues on long retention periods. In their experiment, participants were tapped describing words with gestures. Participants were then either shown their own video, another’s video, or no video. Frick-Horbury found that in a delayed retrieval interval the participants that saw their own video remembered much more than another’s video or no video. This finding suggests that meaningful gestures to the participant lead to increased memory.

With the idea of increased memory relating to gestures being such a promising topic, it is no surprise that it has been expanded upon such as by So, Chen-Hui, and Wei-Shan (2012). In their study they tested for the mnemonic effect of iconic gesture and beat gesture in adults where conic gestures are gestures that having meaning in relation to the word, and beat gestures are tapping along while saying the word. They divided up 30 undergraduate students into three different hand movements (none, beats, iconic gesture). After viewing three lists of ten verbs each, participants completed a math task to stop interference of previously viewed words. They were then given a recall test. It was found that both iconic gestures and beat lead to an increase in memory compared with no gesture. There was no distinct difference between beat gestures and iconic gestures. This data once again suggests that gestures aid memory in a way that is significant over doing nothing. These two studies on gestures are important because they illustrate another way in which memory is enhanced.

All five studies combined not only tell a compelling story, but they beg an interesting question. What happens if the tested measures are combined? Will participants viewing emotional words while performing gestures demonstrate an interaction effect and remember even more? This is exactly what we set out to find. Integrating the best measures and aspects from the studies we have created a unique study. We hypothesize that participants will display an interaction effect between recall and recognition of emotional/arousing words and either a gesture or a beat hand movement. This effect will lead to increased recall/recognition of emotional/arousing words. In addition, we expect to see the same participants score higher on the source memory tests.



Each student in the research methods class found three participants that were either friends, acquaintances, or strangers. They were selected using convenient sampling. Participants were males and females. They participated in the study without compensation. All participants were familiar with the English language. None of the participants had any knowledge of the study prior to involvement.


The study was a 3 (Hand movement: none, beat, gesture) x 3 (Emotional valence: negative, neutral, positive) design. Participants with no hand movement sat with their feet on the ground and their hands between their legs as they read the word aloud. Those that did the beat movement tapped a rhythm while saying the word. The gesture participants moved their hands in a way that represents the word while saying it. The dependent variable was the amount of words recalled, recognized, and source memory (color: blue or yellow).


In order to obtain results, we used a free recall, recognition, and a source memory quiz. The recognition test consists of 108 words (54 target words, 54 lures). The source memory quiz had all 54 stimuli in which the participants indicated the color or “don’t know.” The participants were randomly assigned to one of the three groups to insure that there were no confounding results with any one particular gesture. As a distraction, participants were lead to believe the study was between memory and spatial skills and were given a paper folding and cutting exercise after the slideshow.

We assigned two different colors (blue and yellow) to the slideshow of the selected 54 target words of different emotional valences and arousal values (18 Positive, 9 blue, 9 yellow; 18 Neutral, 9 blue, 9 yellow; 18 Negative, 9 blue, 9 yellow) that were selected using the MRC Psycholinguistic Database, Bradley and Lang’s Affective Norms for English words (ANEW), and Warriner, Kuperman, and Brysbaert’s Norms of valence, arousal, and dominance list (University of western Australia School of Psychology; Bradley & Lang, 1999; Warriner, Kuperman, & Brysbaert 2013). On a laptop or computer, the slideshow presented each word at a pace of three seconds per word. During the slideshow there were three reminders of what specific gesture they should be doing to avoid unrepresentative results. Negative words were selected by low pleasantness and high arousal scores according to the ANEW 1-9 scale (pleasantness M = 2.73, SD = .68; arousal M = 5.27, SD = .87). Neutral words were selected by a lack of pleasantness/unpleasantness and low arousal scores (pleasantness M = 5.28, SD = .48; arousal M = 3.54, SD = .52). Positive words were selected by high pleasantness and high arousal scores (pleasantness M = 7.46, SD = .53; arousal M = 5.00, SD = .77). The different valences were compared to assure there was an actual difference for pleasantness (pleasantness negative v. neutral t (51) = 13.45, p < .001; neutral v. positive t (51) = 11.45, p < .001) and arousal (arousal negative v. neutral t (51) = 7.02, p < .001; neutral v. positive t (51) = 5.95, p < .001). Also, as expected, there is little arousal difference between negative and positive (t (51) = 1.07, p = .29).

The target words were checked for the collapsed across valence levels of concreteness, familiarity, and the number of letters (concreteness M = 532.61, SD = 73.84; familiarity M = 534.13, SD = 39.17; number of letters M = 6.11, SD = 1.33) in each word based on the MRC scale that ranges from 100-700. During testing, target words in the slideshow were divided into thirds (1-18, 19-36, 37-54). The objective was to avoid casual ambiguity by balancing the order of valence words (6 negative words, 3 yellow, 3 blue; 6 neutral words, 3 yellow, 3 blue; 6 positive words, 3 yellow, 3 blue) per third of the slideshow. Mixed with lures, the order of the words is switched to a different order on the recognition test after the slideshow. The order in which the stimuli appeared is changed a third time on the source memory test. In addition, the target stimuli and lures were all 1-3 syllable nouns and lures had the same characteristics as target words in order to avoid confounding factors.

Five Paper Folding & cutting questions were used as the spatial skill distractor (Thorndike, Hagen, & Sattler, 1986). The questions showed a series of folds administered to a piece of paper that were followed by an imaginary cut. On the same answer sheet a series of demographic questions such as age, gender, and ethnicity. Also, there were scales from 1-9 for the participant’s anxiety level and comfort level while viewing the slideshow.

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Before the study began participants signed a consent form that briefly outlined the general purpose of the study with the deception of spatial skills as being important. After consent was obtained, experimenters informed the participants that they will see 54 words appearing in two different colors at a fast rate and that later they will be asked to recall the words and colors. The participants were then told that cognitive psychologists have suggested that their specific hand movement leads to the easy remembering. After shown an example the participants started the slide show during which they followed their specific hand movement.

Following the slideshow, participants had 30 seconds per each Paper folding & Cutting question. The participants were tasked with picking which of 5 images would represent the paper if it was unfolded after being cut. This was followed by filling out demographic information. Then, the participant used a blank sheet of paper and wrote as many words as they could remember in five minutes. After the recall test they received the recognition test and had five minutes to circle the words they recognized. Following this, they were then given the list of 54 target words and had three minutes to indicate the color. After the last test the experimenter debriefed the participant. Participants were told of the deception that was used and why it was used in regards to this study.


There was a main effect of hand movement on free recall, F (2, 276) = 54.19, p < .001, where participants that made gestures (M = 5.35, SD = 2.66) recalled more words than those who made beats (M = 3.10, SD = 1.86) and those that did nothing (M = 3.12, SD = 1.70). There was also a main effect of valence on free recall, F (1, 276) = 153.21, p < .001, where participants recalled more emotionally valenced words (M = 4.61, SD = 2.26) than neutral words (M = 3.90, SD = 2.22). Counter to expectations, there was no interaction effect between hand movements and valence of words on free recall, F (2, 276) = 2.50, p. = .084.

Participants that performed no hand movements recalled more emotional words (M = 3.68, SD = 1.67) than neutral words (M = 2.55, SD = 1.55), t (92) = -5.78, p < .001. Participants that performed a beat gesture recalled more emotional words (M = 3.91, SD = 1.73) than neutral words (M = 2.29, SD = 1.63), t (92) = -8.64, p < .001. Participants that made a gesture recalled more emotional words (M = 6.24, SD = 2.37) than neutral words (M = 4.46, SD = 2.65), t (92) =  -7.23, p < .001.

There was a main effect of word valence on recognition, F (2, 276) = 10.19, p < .001. Participants recognized more negative words (M = 12.52, SD = 4.00) than positive words (M = 11.86, SD = 4.42) and neutral words (M = 11.74, SD = 4.47). There was no difference in the amount of recognized words between positive and neutral words, p = .497.

There was also a main effect of word valence of source recognition, F (2, 276) = 25.13, p < .001. Participants recognized more sources when the word was negative (M = 6.87, SD = 3.90) rather than neutral (M = 6.12, SD = 3.94), p < .001. Also, participants recognized more sources when the word was positive (M = 7.22, SD = 3.86), p < .001.

Participants scored higher in item recognition than source memory in negative words, t (278) = 17.76, p < .001; neutral words, t (278) = 17.06, p < .001; and positive words t (278) = 14.40, p < .001. Participants indicated “don’t know” in regards to item source recognition more for neutral words (M = 7.48, SD = 5.67) than emotional words (M = 6.29, SD = 5.21), t (278) = 8.49, p < .001.


In the present study we analyzed the effects of hand movements and valence of words on memory. While there was both an effect of hand movement and valence of words on memory, there was not the interaction effect between the two that we were hoping to find. Participants recalled the word, recognized the word, and recognized the item source more often when gesturing or when the words were emotionally valenced.

These results are largely consistent with those found in the literature relating to the effects of both gestures and valence of words on memory (e.g. Doerksen and Shimamura, 2001) validating that an individual’s memory is enhanced through gestures or the use of emotional words. While the numbers match up with the previous research, some still stand out. For example, participants remembered sources better if the words were emotional, and even more so if it was a positive word. This extremity could be the product of an increased focus on just the source memory by the participant.

A surprising discrepancy in our study was that there was no difference in free recall between no gesture and beats gesture. This finding contradicts the findings of So et al. (2012). A potential cause of this difference could be that in the present study participants also were focusing on the color of each individual word which took away from emphasis on only the words. Another possible cause is the number of words used in the study. So et al. used a total of 30 words compared to the current study’s 54 words. The combination of more words and more factors to remember could easily attribute for this difference. This same reasoning also helps shed light to the lack of interaction effect. The p-value for the interaction effect was close to significance which makes it logical to conclude that if the beat gesture produced results closer to those of So et al., then there could’ve been an interaction effect. Another potential confound is a lack of uniformity among the experimenters. The high number of experiments could be reduced in the future to reduce potential future error and potentially provide an interaction effect. Although, the benefit of having many researcher was an increased amount of participants and degrees of freedom which in turn increased the power and validity of our research. Another strength of the previous research is the high quality of standards. If the present research adopted a 90% confidence interval then there would’ve been an interaction effect, however, we will not sacrifice validity for the ability to say the hypothesis was right.

Even without the interaction, the findings are still important. The fact that emotional stimuli and sources are remembered more than neutral ones suggests that an individual will remember more details about an emotionally charged situation. Therefore, active consciousness is evoked easier when emotions are involved. While these are interesting suggestions, the study is limited by the lack of ability to generalize the findings from words to real life situations. The present study should be viewed as a stepping stone on the path to the other side of the river such as the way that Kensinger and Corkin (2003) built upon previous research that only utilized pictures as emotional stimuli. Future researcher could expand upon the wealth of previous research and apply the theories in real life scenarios and daily interactions. One such potential study could put participants in an emotional situation and measure how many details of the situation they remember compared to someone in the same situation without the emotion. The human brain is still one of the greatest mysteries and every step researchers can take in the right direction such as this is progress well earned. The use of this potential future research could then be used to impact and better understand the daily lives of people or be used by other researchers to continue the quest for knowledge.


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