GERNSBACHER, M. A., & HARGREAVES, D. (1988). Accessing sentence participants: The advantage of first mention. Journal of Memory and Language, 27, 699-717.
We investigate the following finding concerning the order in which participants are mentioned in sentences: In a probe recognition task, probe words are responded to considerably more rapidly when they are the names of the first- as opposed to the second-mentioned participants. Seven experiments demonstrated that this advantage is not attributable to the tendency in English for first-mentioned participants to be semantic agents; neither is it due to the fact that in many of our experiments, the first-mentioned participants were also the initial words of their stimulus sentences. Furthermore, the advantage is not attenuated when the first- and second-mentioned participants share syntactic subjecthood, or even when the first-mentioned participants are not the syntactic subjects. In sum, the effect does not appear to be attributable to linguistic factors. We suggest instead that it is the result of cognitive processes: Building a coherent mental representation requires first laying a foundation and then mapping subsequent information onto the developing representation. First-mentioned participants are more accessible because they form the foundations for their sentence-level representations and because it is through them that subsequent information gets mapped onto the developing representations.