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In serial recall experiments, human subjects are requested to retrieve a list of words in the same order as they were presented. In a classical study, participants were reported to recall more words from study lists composed of short words compared to lists of long words, the word length effect. The world length effect was also observed in free recall experiments, where subjects can retrieve the words in any order. Here we analyzed a large dataset from free recall experiments of unrelated words, where short and long words were randomly mixed, and found a seemingly opposite effect: long words are recalled better than the short ones. We show that our recently proposed mechanism of associative retrieval can explain both these observations. Moreover, the direction of the effect depends solely on the way study lists are composed.