Exploring the effects of demonstration and enactment in facilitating recall of instructions in working memory

Publication authors

Richard J. Allen, Liam J. B. Hill, Lucy H. Eddy & Amanda H. Waterman


Across the lifespan the ability to follow instructions is essential for the successful completion of a multitude of daily activities. This ability will often rely on the storage and processing of information in working memory, and previous research in this domain has found that self-enactment at encoding or observing other-enactment at encoding (demonstration) improves performance at recall. However, no working memory research has directly compared these manipulations. Experiment 1 explored the effects of both self-enactment and demonstration on young adults’ (N=48) recall of action-object instruction sequences (e.g. ‘spin the circle, tap the square’). Both manipulations improved recall, with demonstration providing relatively larger boosts to performance across conditions. More detailed analyses suggested that this improvement was driven by improving the representations of actions, rather than objects, in these action-object sequences. Experiment 2 (N=24) explored this further, removing the objects from the physical environment and comparing partial demonstration (i.e. action-only or object-only) with no or full demonstration. The results showed that partial demonstration only benefitted features that were demonstrated, while full demonstration improved memory for actions, objects and their pairings. Overall these experiments indicate how self-enactment, and particularly demonstration, can benefit verbal recall of instruction sequences through the engagement of visuo-motor processes that provide additional forms of coding to support working memory performance.