Extensions of the survival advantage in memory: Examining the role of ancestral context and implied social isolation


Recent work (e.g., Nairne & Pandeirada, 2010) has shown that words are remembered better when they have been processed for their survival value in a grasslands context than when processed in other contexts. It has been suggested that this is because human memory systems were shaped by evolution specifically to help humans survive. Thus far, the survival processing advantage has mainly been shown with grasslands contexts, which are thought to be particularly relevant to human evolution. The present study demonstrated the survival processing advantage with other contexts (e.g., lost in a jungle), including with contexts that should not, in and of themselves, be relevant to human evolution (e.g., lost in outer space). We further examined whether implied social isolation plays a critical role in the survival advantage to memory by comparing scenarios in which the person is alone versus with other people present (e.g., lost at sea alone or with others), and whether the perceived source of danger is social isolation or other human attackers. A survival advantage was shown in both the isolation and the group settings, and whether the primary source of danger was isolation or other human attackers did not matter. These findings suggest that the survival advantage in memory is not dependent on evolutionarily relevant physical contexts (e.g., grasslands) or particular sources of perceived danger (social isolation vs. perceived attackers), showing the advantage to be robust and applicable to a variety of scenarios.



Document Type





Evolution, Memory, Survival

Publication Date


Journal Title

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition