The recency effect refers to the psychological phenomenon where people tend to remember the last thing in a sequence more than things that come before it.
It is a feature of the serial position effect, which demonstrates that both the last thing (recency effect) and first thing (primacy effect) are the most memorable items in a sequence.
A recency effect example is when you try to reflect on your day at school and remember the last lesson you had, but struggle to recall what happened in earlier lessons.
Recency Effect Definition
The recency effect refers to the fact our memories remember the last item in a list more than previous items, with the exception of the first item, which is often also highly memorable.
Some simple scholarly definitions include:
- “The recency effect describes the increased recall of the most recent information because it is still in the short-term memory.” (Levi, Goldentough & Goldentouch, 2015)
- “The recency effect refers to the observation that our recall is especially accurate for the final items in a series of stimuli (such as a list of words or numbers).” (Farmer & Matlin, 2019)
- “The recency effect is demonstrated by the fact that the last few items in a list are usually much better remembered than items from the middle of the list.” (Eysenck, 2005)
- “Recency effect: the tendency to allow a recent incident to influence judgments of performance dimensions for the entire performance period.” (London, 2003)
As a practical implication, the recency effect reminds us that we should place the most important information last when communicating with others (e.g. in a debate) in order to ensure you leave the person with a good last impression.
Recency Effect Examples
- Last person interviewing for a job: 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 interviewed 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.
- Remembering the last thing you ate: If you were asked to list, in reverse order, every meal you’ve had this week, you’ll be more likely to remember your most recent dinner than your dinner from two, three, or four nights ago.
- Recalling the last television advertisement: Research shows () that the last television advertisement is the most memorable, which is why it’s the most expensive ad spot for companies to purchase.
- House hunting: After an exhausting day of looking for a new house to rent, you sit with your spouse to reflect on the options. You recall the most recent one, but the seventh and eight ones are lost from your memory.
- Concluding an essay: We’ve all been taught to conclude our essay with the most compelling point defending our argument in order to leave the reader with a great final impression.
- Recalling how a movie ended: Reflecting on a movie you recently watched, the middle scenes might be a muddle, but you likely recall the final scene as it was the most recent and last one you saw.
- All’s well that ends well: If you do something embarrassing in the middle of a date but recover and end the date on a high, your date is more likely to remember the final impression (and first impression) than the silly comment you made 30 minutes into the dinner.
- The server’s memory: A server who took seven orders at once recall the most recent order, but forgets what the third person ordered. Next time, they will remember to bring a notepad.
- The last time you flew: You’re more likely to remember details of the most recent flight you took than the flight before that or the one before that.
- Making introductions: On your first day of work, you were introduced to 20 people, and you seem only to remember the names of the first and last person you were introduced to.
- Cramming for an exam: The morning of your exams, you do some last studying by focusing on the most important topic because you know that having it fresh in your mind will increase your chances of remembering it.
- Adverts in food malls: Fast food companies want to have their advertisements plastered all over the food mall because they want to have their brand fresh in the minds of hungry shoppers.
- Shopping for dresses: Shopping for wedding dresses can go on all day. But the day after, the bride-to-be may not remember the dresses she tried on in the middle of the day.
- Coach’s fury: Three players made blunders in the football match, but the coach’s ire seems to be focused on the player who made a mistake in the last five minutes because that mistake is still fresh in his mind.
Serial Position Effect Theory
The recency effect comes from the serial position effect theory by Ebbinghaus (1885). The serial position effect refers to the fact that people tend to be able to recall the first and last items in a list better than items in the middle.
This psychological phenomenon was first identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885).
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.
Recency Effect vs Primacy Effect
- 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 primacy effect include:
- Phone Numbers: Often, we’ll try to store a phone number in our short-term memory, for example, but when we try to recall it, we’ll only remember the first few numbers.
- A Bad First Impression: 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.
The Recency Effect is Stronger than the Primacy Effect
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:
A market research company in Amsterdam collected data on television advertising and consumer memory involving over 2,600 commercials. Viewers were interviewed about which adverts they remembered seeing.
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” (Peters & Bijmolt, 1997, p. 362).
Chunking to Remember
One way to overcome the recency effect is to try to ‘chunk’ a list of items into one memorable unit of information. If you only need to remember one idea, then it’s less likely that you’ll forget
One way to do this is to create an acronym. For example, you may fall victim to the recency effect if 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 recency (or primacy) effect!
Other strategies include making stories out of lists to remember them, and making songs out of lists, in order to create a memorable narrative that can help guide you through the full list of items without forgetting them.
Of course, another key way to remember is to simply keep a journal while information is fresh in your mind.
The recency effect is worthwhile knowing because it can help us overcome our own cognitive biases. It’s also a reminder to externalize our thoughts and lists onto notepads or other memory aides so we don’t forget the sequence of events.
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