The serial position effect is based on the human psyche’s property to remember better the first and last object in a series of several objects.
This effect was first described by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus.
He found out that if a person is given a list and asked to remember, they more accurately reproduce from memory the elements that were at the beginning and end of the list.
People either forget the points located in the middle or reproduce them inaccurately. Thus, remembering a certain object in the list depends on its location.
For example, in an academic context, students can better remember the questions asked first and last when taking exams. In this case, the first position provides the highest advantage.
Simply, the serial position effect means that the probability of remembering something increases at the beginning and end. In other words – people’s mind processes information better when it comes first or last in a series.
Serial Position Effect: Psychology Definition
The serial position effect refers to the phenomenon in which a person’s ability to recall items from a list is influenced by the position of the items within that list.
According to Craik and colleagues (2014),
“the serial-position effect is just the fact that when a list of items is learned, the items in the middle of the list are recalled less well than the items at the beginning (this is known as primacy) or the end (recency)” (p. 261).
The primacy effect occurs because the first few items have a greater chance of being transferred from short-term to long-term memory, while the recency effect is attributed to the ability to recall the last few items since they are still held in short-term memory (Maylor, 2002).
The middle items in the list are usually forgotten because they have less chance to be transferred to long-term memory due to competition from other items and the decay of short-term memory.
In simple terms, the serial position effect is a phenomenon that explains how people remember information better when it appears first or last in a series.
10 Serial Position Effect Examples
- In a job interview, a candidate is more likely to remember the first and last questions asked by the interviewer than the questions asked in the middle.
- When digesting a book, readers tend to recall the opening of the storyline more so than what happens in between.
- During a play, an audience member is more likely to remember the opening and closing scenes than the scenes in the middle.
- When studying for an exam, a student is more likely to remember what was covered in the introduction and conclusion of the course than what was discussed in the middle chapters.
- In a grocery store, a shopper is more likely to remember the items at the beginning and end of their shopping list than the items in the middle.
- When going through a photo album, viewers are more likely to remember the first and last photos in an album than the photos in between.
- During a debate, an audience member is more likely to remember the opening and closing statements made by the debaters than the arguments presented in the middle.
- When reading a newspaper, readers have a higher likelihood of recalling the stories at the beginning and end of the publication than the stories in between.
- If someone is given a list of names, they are more likely to remember the first and last names rather than the ones in between.
- A boy playing a game will likely remember the beginning and end rules better than the middle ones.
Origins of Serial Position Effect
The German psychologist Ebbinghaus at the end of the 19th century, decided that in order to understand the laws of “pure” memory, independent of the activity of thinking, it is necessary to memorize meaningless syllables.
Using this technique, he found that relatively simple events that made a strong impression on a person are often remembered immediately and for a long time.
Another conclusion was that the material at the ends is better reproduced when memorizing a long row. And Hermann Ebbinghaus gave it the name “serial position effect” (Franzoi, 2014).
According to the French psychologist Foucault, such an effect results from the interaction of internal inhibition processes that simultaneously act in the course of learning and slow it down (Crowder, 2015).
Other scientists, Atkinson and Shiffrin, proposed a layered memory model in 1968. They conducted a series of studies on the effect of position and studies on brain-injured patients.
Their experiments showed that when participants are presented with a list of words, they tend to remember the first and last few words and are more likely to forget those in the middle of the list (Estes, 2022).
Today, the serial position effect is widely used in marketing, learning, and teaching applications to help people better remember information. It is also applied for memory tests and experiments to better understand how memory works.
Types of Serial Position Effect
1. The Primacy Effect
The primacy effect highlights the significance of initial occurrences, as they profoundly impact everything that follows.
The primacy effect theory states that when you process one item on a list, the amount of effort required is relatively low. Therefore, when reviewing a six-item list, for example, your mind must also consider all five preceding items as well.
Still, the primacy effect also dictates that the first item will have more of an impact and be better remembered than all other items on the list (Maylor, 2002).
2. The Recency Effect
The recency effect suggests that recent events are more meaningful than those occurring in the past since they provide us with an up-to-date picture of reality.
The recency effect dictates that items at the end of a sequence are easier to remember due to our working memory‘s ability to retain them. Working memory is imperative to short-term recollection, as it quickly processes conscious and immediate data.
People’s working memory can only store short-term data, and it serves as a backup for incoming information while their brain translates it into other types of memories that are more lasting (Maylor, 2002).
Importance of Serial Position Effect
Understanding the serial position effect is important because it can provide insights into how memory works and how people can improve it.
The serial position effect helps educators understand the importance of the order in which information is presented to learners (Lee et al., 2019).
Teachers can structure their lessons and presentations to highlight the most important information at the beginning and end of a lesson, improving student learning and memory retention.
Understanding the serial position effect can be useful in the legal system, particularly in witness testimony. Lawyers and investigators can use this knowledge to structure their questioning to maximize the witness’s ability to recall important details.
Besides, this effect is highly applicable in marketing and advertising. Companies can use it to create more effective ad campaigns by ensuring that the words, images, and other elements used at the beginning and end of an ad are the most memorable.
For example, many companies use catchy jingles at the beginning and end of their commercials to make them more memorable.
Overall, understanding the serial position effect can help individuals improve their memory and retention of information, as well as provide insights into how to structure presentations, marketing campaigns, and legal proceedings.
Strengths of Serial Position Effect
The Serial Position Effect is an important theory when studying memory. It helps people understand how they remember certain items better than others and why they have difficulty recalling information in the middle of a list.
This effect also has practical applications in marketing, advertising, education, and other fields. For example, by using its principles, specialists can structure presentations, marketing campaigns, and lessons to positively influence memory retention.
The serial position effect has been observed not only in verbal memory tasks but also in other domains, such as visual memory and spatial memory. So, its principles can be applied to other types of memory tasks as well.
Finally, the serial position effect has been studied extensively and is widely accepted in the scientific community, making it a reliable and influential theory.
Weaknesses of Serial Position Effect
Despite its strengths, the serial position effect does have some weaknesses So, it mainly relies largely on short-term memory, meaning that the items remembered at the beginning and end may eventually fade unless recalled.
For one, the serial position effect relies on human memory, which is inherently imperfect and unreliable. Depending on the current state and environment, people can easily forget items in the middle of a list or at the beginning or end.
In addition, the serial position effect is context-dependent. It only works if people are given explicit instructions and know what they need to remember. If the environment or instructions are changed, even slightly, the effect may not be as pronounced.
Besides, although the serial position effect has been studied extensively, some unknowns remain. For example, it is unclear why people forget items in the middle of a list or why some items are remembered better than others.
Summary of Strengths and Weaknesses
|Helps people understand memory||Relies largely on short-term memory|
|Has practical applications||Human memory is inherently imperfect|
|Applies to different memory tasks||Effect is context-dependent|
|Widely accepted and studied theory||Some unknowns remain about the effect|
The serial position effect is the phenomenon in which people tend to recall better the first and last items in a list rather than those in the middle.
It occurs due to the primacy and recency effects, where the first few items have a greater chance of being transferred from short-term to long-term memory, and the last few items are still held in short-term memory.
The middle items in the list are usually forgotten due to competition from other items and the decay of short-term memory.
The serial position effect has been observed in various settings, from job interviews to grocery shopping, and is widely used in marketing and learning, and teaching applications.
Understanding this effect can help people better remember important information and optimize learning and teaching strategies.
Craik, F., Robert, M., & Sabourin, M. (2014). Advances in psychological science, volume 2. New York: Psychology Press.
Crowder, R. G. (2015). Principles of learning and memory. New York: Psychology Press.
Estes, W. K. (2022). Handbook of learning and cognitive processes. New York: Psychology Press.
Franzoi, S. L. (2014). Psychology: A discovery experience, copyright update. London: Cengage Learning.
Lee, C. W., Kim, J. H., & Hwang, I. K. (2019). A study on the serial position effect of memory according to illumination of LED light. E3S Web of Conferences, 120, 01002. https://doi.org/10.1051/e3sconf/201912001002
Maylor, E. A. (2002). Serial position effects in semantic memory: Reconstructing the order of verses of hymns. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(4), 816–820. https://doi.org/10.3758/bf03196340
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.