Why do we only remember the first things on our grocery list?
Primacy Effect, explained.
What is the Primacy Effect?
The primacy effect is the tendency to remember the first piece of information we encounter better than information presented later on.
Where this bias occurs
The primacy effect can occur in a variety of ways. For example, when an individual tries to remember something from a long list of words, they will remember words listed at the beginning, instead of the middle. The primacy effect aids an individual in recalling information they first see better than information presented later on.1
To cater to this cognitive bias, companies often use television, radio, internet, and print advertising to present us with the first impression of their product or service, even before it is available. Additionally, this technique is used in news stories about upcoming phone releases or movie previews. There is often an incentive to make sure the first news you hear about a product is positive.
Debias Your Organization
Most of us work & live in environments that aren’t optimized for solid decision-making. We work with organizations of all kinds to identify sources of cognitive bias & develop tailored solutions.
The primacy effect can potentially have a significant impact on our choices. Understanding the primacy effect ensures that we make better judgments in our day-to-day life.
Complex Decision Making
The primacy effect impacts the way we make decisions, as the way we receive information has proven to be a critical factor in the decision-making process.2 An individual’s opinion can easily be manipulated or skewed based on their first impression of an object or person.
An example of a need for awareness of the primacy effect is evident when purchasing products and making decisions as consumers. Being conscious that marketing experts are both aware and utilizing the primacy effect to enhance their product’s promotion is essential. This is done by ensuring that the first impression of their product is a positive one. Marketers do this by advertising the product before it’s available or creating unique packaging for when you first receive the product to solidify your opinion of a product based on its first impression.
Being aware of the primacy effect when buying products can help push you to not make rash purchasing decisions based on first impressions, as it is better to research products and weigh options based on fact. This ensures that individuals don’t fall prey to advertising and marketing strategies and make the best choices for themselves.
The primacy effect can additionally affect our decision-making ability due to its influence on the anchoring bias. The anchoring bias describes an individual’s tendency to rely on initial information to anchor subsequent judgments and interpretations. The primacy effect partnered with the anchoring bias results in an individual relying too heavily on the first piece of information they receive, and then neglecting any subsequent information learned. This mix of cognitive biases can be especially problematic, as it prevents an individual from learning and making rash decisions.3
The primacy effect can present systemic problems, especially in regards to its influence on our democracy.
Jonathan JS Koppell, a Yale researcher, and Jennifer A. Steen, a researcher from Boston College, demonstrated the influence of primacy effect in their 2004 study titled The Effects of Ballot Position on Election Outcome. Koppell and Steen found that in elections in New York City, the candidate who was listed first on the ballot was tended to receive a greater proportion of the vote. The study was based on the 1998 Democratic Primary in New York City, where candidates’ names on election ballots were rotated among different precincts in the area. In 71 of the 79 elections, candidates who were listed first garnered more votes than when they were listed in any other position. In 7 cases, the advantage conferred by being listed first exceeded the winner’s victory margin, suggesting if the same candidate were listed at the top of the ballot in all precincts, it could swing the election in their favor.4
The previous experiment was based on a study conducted by Miller and Krosnick in 1998 which found similar effects for candidate preferences in laboratory studies. The study titled “The Impact of Candidate Name Order on Election Outcomes” found that citizens who felt compelled to vote, but who lacked sufficient information to make informed choices about whom to vote for, were influenced by the order in which candidates’ names appeared on the ballot. Individuals who developed biases towards candidates listed earlier on the ballot generated reasons to vote for the candidates. They created reasons to vote against candidates when presented lower down the list on the ballot.5
Consistent with this analysis, Miller and Krosnick found that in Ohio’s 1992 election returns, name-order effects and the primacy effect appeared in 48% of the 118 races, advancing candidates listed first at an average rate of 2.5%. Interestingly enough, the primacy effect was most influential in races with the following characteristics: in which party affiliation of the candidates was not listed, races which were minimally publicized, and when no incumbent candidate was available as an election option for a region.5
These two studies provide an excellent example of how an election ballot structure paired with the primacy effect influences election outcomes, especially when voters lack a significant preference for candidates.
Why it happens
Do you know the cautionary dating advice “first impressions matter”? Well, it has a solid basis in cognitive psychology, at least if your date is a list of words.
You’ve probably experienced this yourself anytime you have tried to learn a list of items. It’s much easier to recall the first item on the list than one in the middle.
Items that appear first on a list are stored in long-term memory more easily than subsequent items further down the list. It takes less processing power for the brain to rehearse and recall a single item (the first item on the list), than multiple items (the items later in the list in addition to the preceding ones). There is evidence that when people read a series of statements about a person, the amount of time they spend reading the items declines with each new piece of information.6
We are more likely to show the primacy effect when we are tired than when we are wide awake, and when we are distracted than when we are paying attention.7
The primacy effect is connected to the recency effect — the fact that we recall the latest information better. For example, in competitions such as the Eurovision Song Contest and ice skating, it was found that higher marks were given to competitors who performed last De Bruin (2005).
Why it is important
This effect needs to be taken into account anytime a series of people, objects, or ideas are presented to someone to reduce the importance of the first ones compared to the others. Early traits lead us to form an initial expectancy about the people we meet, and once that expectancy is formed, we tend to process information in ways that keep that expectancy intact. Unfortunately, once we have developed a schema, it becomes difficult to change it.
There are important implications for teaching, as students are more likely to recall information presented earlier in the learning episode than in the middle, therefore it makes sense to front-load the most important aspects of a lesson.
How to avoid it
The primacy effect is common and infiltrates our cognitive processes when we try to make decisions. After learning about the Privacy Effect, make sure to do the following to keep yourself from being influenced by the bias:
Gather Your Information
The primacy effect is influential because it is an individual’s way of remembering the first thing they see on a list, or the use of a first impression to define an individual. This cognitive short-cut can be overcome by taking the time to do research when making purchases so that you won’t be easily influenced and can make decisions based on the best information available.
Now that you know what the primacy effect is, take time to ensure it isn’t being used in your daily life. When you finish reading an article, ask yourself what you remember. Take the time to outline everything learned, without focusing on information that was just presented at the beginning. By exercising these habits, you can be more aware of the primacy effect, and avoid the bias.
How it all started
The primacy effect was first studied concerning how it influences our impressions of other individuals.
Polish-American psychologist Solomon Eliot Asch is considered a pioneer in social psychology, and dedicated much of his research to impression formation, conformity and prestige suggestion.8 Asch was particularly interested in how humans formed impressions of other individuals and peers. His research focused on how easily humans could develop these impressions and how they could be influenced or manipulated. Asch conducted several experiments where he asked participants to form an initial impression of a hypothetical person based on characteristics presented.9
One of Asch’s more notable studies was published in 1946 and explored the primacy effect regarding individuals and their impressions of others. In the study, Asch first presented study participants with an initial list of character traits. He generated two different types of lists, one with character traits of an individual, but beginning with the individual’s positive traits, and the other list containing exactly the same traits but in reverse order. The first positive list characterized an individual as intelligent, industrious, impulsive, stubborn, and envious, with the second list containing the same list but in reverse.9
Through a series of investigations, Asch asked his students to form impressions and write characterizations of the person who the list described. He found that participants who read lists where positive traits came first formed more favorable impressions than those who read lists with negative traits first.9 The difference in list order, resulted in a completely different description of the individual as perceived by others. After reading the first list, study participants described the individual as “an able person who possesses certain shortcomings, which, do not, however, overshadow his merits.” The second list impressions resulted in the individual being described as “a problem, whose abilities are hampered by his serious difficulties.”9 The primacy effect heavily influenced students from the study and thus created impressions of other individuals based on this bias alone.
Example 1 - Modern-day marketing
Product releases and launches often take advantage of the primacy effect.
Before a product is launched, there is typically a strategy at the pre-promotion of the product to ensure that people remember the first information they hear about the product in a positive light. By controlling the first message of a product to potential buyers, a marketer can ensure that a product’s first impression is a positive one. Common avenues of pre-promotion releases are seen on television, the radio, print, the internet, and, more recently, influencer promotion.10
Examples of this initial pre-promotion can be seen in pre-product launch reveals, where companies showcase a product for the first time in theatre-like stage performance and broadcast the reveal as well. This technique is commonly done by Apple and Tesla, to showcase new products in a new and luxurious light, ensuring customers remember the product and its excellent features.
Example 2 - The primacy effect and getting a job
The primacy effect can also impact if you get a job or not. A survey by Simply Hired revealed that 93% of hiring managers viewed coming late for an interview an extremely unfavorable quality, making it the highest indicator of what not to do for an interview.11 Additionally, dressing too casually or having mistakes in a resume and cover letter also were noted as examples of ways to create wrong first impressions when participating in the recruitment process.11
When applying to jobs, first impressions ensure whether an individual receives a job, as their first impression is a representation of hiring managers of a candidate’s character. The primacy effect plays a significant role in the hiring process. A wrong first impression is likely to be remembered, just as an excellent first impression is likely to be remembered.
What it is
The primacy effect is a cognitive bias and refers to an individual’s tendency to better remember the first piece of information they encounter than the information they receive later on.
Why it happens
The primacy effect happens for several reasons, the main reason being our memory, as it is easier to remember what is first said on a list, compared to what is in the middle of a list. Additionally, the primacy effect tends to happen when people are either tired or distracted when trying to remember what’s on a list. Finally, the primacy effect is connected to the Recency Effect, in which we recall the latest information better.
Example 1 – The primacy effect is used in modern-day marketing
Before its launch, the marketing promotion of a product is a classic example of the primacy effect in the business world. Marketers are attempting to utilize the primacy effect to develop an excellent first impression with potential customers and their product by controlling the product’s initial messaging to the customers.
Example 2 – The primacy effect and Getting a Job
The primacy effect also impacts if an individual gets hired or not. When applying to a job or attending an interview, if an individual creates a negative first impression, they are less likely to get hired for a position. This negative impression is demonstrative to a hiring manager of what an individual’s characteristics are. Though this might not be the case, first impressions are emphasized so much when applying to jobs.
How to avoid it
Aside from being aware of the primacy effect, an individual should also focus on gathering as much information as possible when first making a decision and taking their time to avoid the bias and its effects on decision making. Additionally, exercising avoiding the primacy effect in our own life will help avoid it in complex decisions in the future.