The primacy effect refers to the cognitive bias whereby people remember the first thing in a sequence more than things that come after it.
It is a feature of the broader theory of the serial position effect, which demonstrates that the first thing (primacy effect) and last thing (recency effect) are the most memorable items in any sequence.
A primacy effect example is when you try to remember an 8-digit phone number in your short-term memory, but when it’s time to recall the numbers, you can only recall the first three numbers.
Primacy Effect Definition
First described by Ebbinghaus in 1885, the primacy effect refers to the fact our memories remember the first item in a list more than subsequent items, with the exception of the last item.
Some simple scholarly definitions include:
- “Primacy effects are thought to occur when individuals close off their processing prior to a full consideration of the information (i.e., the later information).” (Pyszczynski, Greenberg & Koole, 2004)
- “[The primacy effect] results in the early information taking on a disproportionate experience, and increasing the chances that it will be remembered more than will later information” (Sabates, 2012)
This phenomenon can cause significant forgetting and misremembering. It reminds us that we should place the most important information first (or last) in a list in order to ensure it’s got the best chance of being remembered.
Primacy Effect Examples
- Phone Numbers: Often, we’ll try to store a phone number in our short-term memory, but when we try to recall it, we’ll only remember the first few numbers.
- A Bad First Date: You made a terrible first impression on a first date and, despite trying to make up for it for the rest of the date, you know that first impression was a huge mistake and will linger for a long while.
- Shopping Lists: Similarly, if we write a shopping list, it’s more likely we’ll remember the first one or two items, but the middle items might slip our minds.
- Reading: When reading an article for university, students will often remember the first few key ideas or concepts, but forget what was written in the body of the text.
- Writing a Resume: Due to the primacy effect theory, people are trained to highlight their most compelling resume skills at the top of the cover letter.
- Making Introductions: When we are introduced to a lot of people at once (such as our first day in the office), we are more likely to remember the names of the first few people we’re introduced to – perhaps because we’re fresher at the start of the day!
- Television advertisements: We tend to remember the first (and last) television advertisements during an ad break. This is why these two slots are the most expensive for companies to purchase.
- Your first flight: After we’ve flown in a lot of planes in our lives, we can look back and remember the first time we flew on a plane but not the second, third, fourth, or fifth.
- Studying: When university students study a topic, they tend to find that the first things they study are stored in their memories better than subsequent things. This may be because they’re fresher at the beginning of the study session.
- The Movies: The day after going to the movies, it is easier to describe what happened in the first scene of the film than the second, third, fourth, or fifth.
- Recalling your Day: At the end of a busy but mundane day, we can better recall what happened first in the day than in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon.
- Shopping: Shopping for wedding dresses can go on all day. But the day after, the bride-to-be is more likely to remember the first dress she wore than the third or fourth.
- House Hunting: House hunting can be exhausting. It’s much easier to remember the first house the agent showed than the third one.
- The Server’s Memory: A server is taking the orders of a large table of customers, but she forgets what the people ordered in the middle. Next time she’ll remember to bring her notepad.
- Rehearsing a Song: When rehearsing a new song, band members may find it easier to remember how the song starts than how it goes in the middle.
- Reciting Events: When a father asks his eight year old daughter to recall what happened on her school excursion to the museum, she starts well by explaining the first two things they looked at, but gets the order muddled after that
Causes of the Primacy Effect
Two possible reasons for the primacy effect include:
- Cognitive Overload: According to Miller (1956), humans can only remember 7 items, plus or minus two. Longer lists end up being forgotten, but the first and last items often linger in our minds.
- Fatigue: We often pay more attention at the beginning of a sequence but, once we think we understand, our attention wanes. While this fatigue affects people of all ages, it tends to affect younger children most (Alexander & Winne, 2012).
Serial Position Effect Theory
The primacy effect comes from the serial position effect theory by Ebbinghaus (1885). The serial position effect refers to the phenomenon that people are able to better recall the first and last items in a list better than items in the middle.
This aspect of memory was first identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus in his book Über das Gedächtnis (1902).
Many believe this book
“…records one of the most remarkable research achievements in the history of psychology” (Roediger, 1985, p. 519).
Ebbinghaus conducted his testing on himself in the late 1800s by creating a list of over 2,000 nonsense syllables (e.g., BOK, YAT). The value of nonsense syllables is that they possess no prior associations in memory.
He presented himself with lists of various lengths and then tested his ability to recall those lists. From this research came two types of serial position effect: the primacy effect and the recency effect.
Primacy Effect vs Recency Effect
The primacy and recency effects are both parts of the serial position effect theory. Here are their simple definitions:
- Primacy effect: Recalling the first items better than the middle items.
- Recency effect: Recalling the last items better than the middle items.
Some examples of the recency effect include:
- The Job Interview: An interviewer who spent all day interviewing candidates gets to the end of the day and really only can vividly remember the last person they interviwed because they’re the most recent conversation they had.
- The Skilled Debater: During a debate, the skilled debater knows audience members are more likely to have the closing statements ringing in their minds, so she saved the best argument for last.
Which Effect is Stronger?
Research on television advertising has serial position and found that advertisements that come at the beginning of a set of ads is more memorable than advertisements that came at the end (Peters & Bijmolt, 1997).
In other words, it appears that at least for television advertisements, the primacy effect tends to be stronger than the recency effect.
Here’s the study:
From February 1975 to February 1992, the Nederlands Instituut voor Publieke Opinie (N1PO) /Gallup market research company in Amsterdam collected data on television advertising and consumer memory involving over 2,600 commercials.
Viewers were interviewed at their homes throughout The Netherlands by 60 trained female research assistants.
Peters and Bijmolt (1997) subjected the data to sophisticated statistical analyses. When examining a block of commercials, the results revealed that:
“…the first and last commercial have significant advantages over intermediate ones in terms of unaided brand-name recall [but] the findings suggest that, given comparable costs and a goal to maximize brand recall, placing a commercial first is better than placing it last” (p. 362).
Primacy Effect vs Anchoring Bias
The primacy effect is related to anchoring bias, and at times the terms are used interchangeably. Anchoring bias occurs when the first item in a sequence affects your overall impression of subsequent items.
As Singh (2019) explains:
“There are conditions or situations in which the most recent information that we acquire, exerts the biggest and the strongest influence upon the overall impression formation.”
The difference between the primacy effect and anchoring bias is this:
- Primacy effect means that the first item in a list is most memorable
- Anchoring bias means that the first item in a list affects your perception of the subsequent items.
However, please keep in mind that even many psychology textbooks will use ‘primacy effect’ when referring to the anchoring bias phenomenon. That’s because the primacy effect (the fact you strongly remember the first item) is often the cause of a subsequent anchoring bias.
An example of anchoring bias can be seen when you go used car shopping and the first used car you see costs $5000, then the second car is worth $5500. Compared to the first car, the second one appears expensive.
But if the first car was going for $6000, then the second car that’s $5500 will be perceived as affordable.
This effect is used in marketing as well, when they say something is one price, then say it’s 25% off. Even though they were always going to offer it at the lower price, you’ve been given a higher price first to make the actual price seem like a bargain!
Chunking to Remember
With the awareness that the primacy effect will dissolve your short-term memory, you can try to ‘chunk’ a list of items into one memorable unit of information.
One way to do this is to create an acronym. For example, you may fall victim to the primacy effect iif you want to remember the colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
To help you remember all colors, you could chunk it all into the acronym: ROYGBIV. Now, instead of having to remember every item, you just need to remember one word. You can then unpack this word by going through each letter, thereby avoiding the primacy effect!
Other strategies include making stories out of lists, and making songs out of lists, in order to create a memorable narrative that can help guide you through your list of items.
The primacy effect is a flaw in human memory, but with knowledge of its existence, we can manipulate our environments and thought processes to ensure that we hedge against it. In other words, we should externalize our thoughts on lists to improve our memory (because we know we have a primacy bias), or we should use techniques like chunking and sorting by importance, in order to maximize our chances of remembering the most important items in a list.
Singh, A. K. (2019). Social psychology. PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd..
Sabates, A. M. (2012). Social psychology in Christian perspective: Exploring the human condition. New York: InterVarsity Press.
Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Koole, S. L. (2004). Handbook of experimental existential psychology. New York, NY, 385397.
Alexander, P. A., & Winne, P. H. (2012). Handbook of educational psychology. Routledge.Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). On memory: investigations into experimental psychology. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.