Why do we better remember items at the end of a list?
Recency Effect, explained.
What is the recency effect?
The recency effect refers to our tendency to better remember and recall information presented to us most recently, compared to information we encountered earlier. The recency effect is one of two memory recall biases that make up the serial position effect, a phenomenon which describes how the location of an item in a sequence can impact its memorability.
Where this bias occurs
Imagine the following hypothetical scenario: it’s Tim’s first day at his new job and he’s eager to get started with the onboarding process and getting to know his new colleagues. After a brief welcome meeting, Tim’s line manager, Imran, invites him to go through some new software which Tim will be using in his new role. Step by step, Imran explains how the software works before asking Tim to go and work on a task independently to check that he’s comfortable with using it. Back at his desk, Tim starts to work on the task, only to find that he gets stuck halfway through because he can’t remember one of the steps. Frustratingly, he can remember the last two steps in the process really clearly.
During his lunch break, Tim’s new desk partner, Samantha, introduces him to a group of colleagues. As she quickly rattles off everyone’s name, Tim tries desperately to commit this new information to memory. Despite his best efforts, Tim can only remember the names of the last three people Samantha pointed out to him.
Tim’s ability to remember and recall information from his first day at work was influenced by the recency effect. When presented with information in a sequential manner—that is, one after another—our brains are hardwired to remember the information that was most recently presented to us. This can lead us to overlook or forget the information we encountered earlier in the sequence.
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Each and every one of us has probably encountered the recency effect at some point in our lives. One of the most common scenarios in which we experience this cognitive bias is with remembering lists. Imagine that you arrive at the supermarket and find that you left your shopping list at home. Irritated, you ring your partner and ask them to read you the list. You trust that you’ll remember the list and don’t bother to note down the items. However, as you’re wandering the aisles, you can only recall the last three things your partner said, and you struggle to remember the important staples that they mentioned before.
Although it might end in a return trip to the shops, failing to remember items on a list isn’t the end of the world. But what are the implications of the recency effect when we have to make judgments or decisions based on information we receive in a sequential manner?
When making decisions, we rely on heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to help us lighten the mental load and reach conclusions more quickly. The manner in which we receive and process information influences how we make decisions and judgments. The recency effect becomes problematic when totally irrelevant information, like the order in which information is presented to us, plays a significant role in the decision-making process. As individuals we may be inadvertently impacted by someone else’s poor decision making as a result of the recency effect.
During an interview process, for example, the recency effect may cause hiring managers to place disproportionate emphasis on the most recent candidates they've interviewed. If a candidate impresses toward the end of the interview process, their performance may have a more pronounced effect on the hiring manager's overall evaluation. This can lead them to overlook the strengths of earlier candidates who may have performed equally or even more impressively.
Similarly, in situations where an individual’s performance over a longer period of time is being appraised, the recency effect can have an impact on the evaluation process. In educational settings, for example, students may be evaluated based on their most recent attainment, rather than a more comprehensive assessment of their long-term progress.
Recognizing and mitigating the impact of the recency effect is crucial for making fair and unbiased judgments about individual performance.
The skewed decision-making that we experience at an individual level as a result of the recency effect can have profound consequences when applied to larger systems.
In the context of legal trials, studies have shown that the order in which evidence is presented to a criminal court may influence the juror’s verdict1. Psychologists Kristi Costabile and Stanley Klein2 created four mock court cases and demonstrated that evidence presented late in a trial was more likely to be remembered by the jury and therefore more likely to influence their overall verdict. They also found that incriminating evidence is more likely to lead to a guilty verdict when it is presented late in the trial.
Why is this problematic? Ideally, jurors are meant to decide on a verdict based on an objective consideration of all the evidence presented during the trial. Their judgments shouldn’t be influenced by exogenous factors such as when the evidence was presented during the trial. The recency effect could have significant implications for court case manipulation if the right people know how to leverage it.
In investment scenarios, the recency effect might cause investors to rely too heavily on the latest market trends and neglect the broader historical patterns when making future choices. In 2021, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the real estate sector was one of the best performing sectors in in the S&P 500 stock market index with an annual return of 46%3. Lured by this hot investment trend, many investors may have overlooked their earlier long-term investment plans and the sector’s previous performance to load up on real estate stocks. Fast forward a year to 2022 when the sector returned -22% amidst rising borrowing rates and a slow in the real estate market. The lesson to be learned from this example is that financial markets are cyclical and not to make snap decisions based solely on recent events.
It’s important to acknowledge that the recency effect doesn’t always lead to undesirable outcomes and can be used to enhance our learning and ways of thinking. Classroom teachers often take advantage of the recency effect to optimise learning during their class time. To help students remember the key points of the lesson, teachers may spend 10 minutes or so at the end of the class recapping the most important information. Equally, unimportant administrative tasks, such as taking attendance or collecting homework, are often completed during in the middle of the class.
How it affects product
The recency effect significantly influences the perception and success of products in the market. This cognitive bias plays a pivotal role in shaping consumer preferences and evaluations, with users often giving more weight to their most recent experiences with a product. The recency effect is also leveraged by businesses and brands to enhance sales and marketing efforts by subtly influencing customer behaviour.
Media research4, for example, indicates that television viewers are more prone to remembering advertisements positioned at the end of a commercial break as opposed to those placed earlier in the sequence. The more memorable the commercial, the more likely it is that viewers will consider buying its product. Equally, when presenting information about a product in an online store, marketers will strategically place the most persuasive information last so that buyers can remember it more easily.
For UX designers, understanding the recency effect (and more broadly, the serial position effect) is crucial as this bias has a considerable impact on the overall user experience of websites and mobile applications. The way information is laid out for users on the interface can profoundly affect their capacity to retain and recollect information. For example, a website designer may place the most important links at the bottom of the navigation menu in order to help users remember, and find them, more easily.
Recency effect and AI
Generative AI, such as ChatGPT, tends to format its output as a series of bullet points to help the user sift through the information it provides. As with any list, the recency effect may lead us to better remember the chatbot’s last suggestions and overlook what it wrote earlier in the sequence.
Focussing heavily on the last information presented to us can then influence our subsequent interactions with the system. Say, for example, you ask ChatGPT for examples of common biases in scientific experiments. The system provides you with a list of seven biases which you quickly scan over before replying to an urgent email. When you come back to ChatGPT, you ask it to give you more information on the last two biases because those are the ones you remember most clearly.
Why it happens
The recency effect primarily manifests in situations where individuals are presented with a sequence of information or stimuli. Although this cognitive bias works at an individual level, affecting our judgments and decision making, it can also have implications at a group level. Unfortunately, we don’t have much control over the recency effect because it’s a function of our brain’s capacity to store information.
The recency effect is one of two memory recall biases that make up the serial position effect, a phenomenon which describes how the position of an item in a sequence or list can impact its memorability. The other bias, the primacy effect, refers to our tendency to better remember items that appear at the beginning of a list. Both the primacy and recency effects highlight the role of position or timing in memory retrieval.
It’s believed that both the recency and primacy effect are the result of different memory processes. The recency effect occurs due to the way information is processed and stored in short-term memory. This type of memory only has the ability to store a relatively small amount of information for a short period of time. Only recently acquired information remains active in short-term memory, making it more easily retrievable and, consequently, more influential in shaping decisions. Over time, as short-term memory fades, the recency effect also diminishes.
Why it is important
Depending on the situation, the recency effect can either be an annoying hindrance, a helpful learning tool, or a cunning marketing strategy. As we have seen, the recency effect impacts more than just our day-to-day memory recall. Recognizing the recency effect is important in various aspects of life, from personal decisions to professional judgments. It helps people become aware of their inclination to prioritize the most recent events, ensuring more balanced and informed choices.
One of the main areas where awareness of the recency effect is crucial is in performance evaluation, whether it be in a talent contest, work appraisal, job interview, or academic assessment. Reducing the influence of the recency effect on how we remember and recall information is important for enhancing our ability to fairly judge an individual’s performance.
The recency effect is also important because it sheds light on how our brains process and store information and the limitations of our short-term memory. This information can be extremely helpful in a range of scenarios, such as taking witness statements or revising for important exams.
How to avoid it
As biases go, the recency effect is pretty harmless. However, when it occurs in certain contexts, such as marketing or judicial systems, it can manipulate important outcomes. This is particularly true when we don’t have control over the order in which information is presented to us and we need to make informed decisions based on this information. Avoiding the recency requires a conscious effort to mitigate the influence of recent information on our decision-making processes.
Firstly, make yourself aware of the recency effect and how it affects our ability to remember and recall information. Take a moment to reflect on the areas of your personal and professional lives where this cognitive bias may be at play.
Another important step in avoiding the recency effect is understanding the factors that can either increase or reduce the likelihood of it occurring. For instance, the recency effect is increased when too much information is presented too quickly. So, if someone is rapidly reading you a list or telling you a series of important information, politely ask them to slow down. Likewise, the recency effect is stronger for longer lists of items and tends to occur more when the information is presented verbally rather than visually.
Taking a more holistic approach to information gathering can also help overcome our brain’s over-reliance on our short-term memory. When reviewing material or evidence during decision making or an evaluation, make a conscious effort to focus on the older information that you may have forgotten about. Maintaining detailed records and regularly reviewing historical documents can help to prevent the recency effect from kicking in.
You can also leverage the recency effect to help you perform better in certain tasks. Next time you have an important exam or presentation, take a look at the most essential information, or the material you think you’re most likely to forget, immediately beforehand to help with recall. Equally, if you’re revising information that you learned over a long period of time, it’s important to review the information you studied in the middle as this is most likely to have been forgotten.
How it all started
As previously mentioned, the recency effect is one component of the serial position effect, a phenomenon which was first discovered by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 18855. Ebbinghaus conducted a series of self-administered memory experiments, forcing himself to remember hundreds of lists with randomly placed words and seeing how many he could recall from memory. Eventually, Ebbinghaus concluded that the ability to accurately recall items from a list depended on their location on that list.
One of the main limitations of Ebbinghaus’s experiments was the fact that he was the only test subject. As such, his findings were not generalizable to the wider population and there was a high chance of bias in his methodology. Despite these limitations, Ebbinghaus contributed significantly to our understanding of memory and laid the foundations for further research in the area.
Since Ebbinghaus’s pioneering work, countless studies have been conducted to find out more about the serial position effect, the primacy effect, and the recency effect. Bennett Murdock Jr., an American psychologist specialising in short-term memory, was the first person to research the serial position effect empirically6. In his famous study conducted in 1962, Murdock presented participants with lists of words varying in length from 10 to 40 words. When the list was finished, he asked the participants to recall freely as many words as they could from the list.
The results of the study were identical to Ebbinghaus’s, showing that the likelihood of a participant recalling a word depended on its position in the list. To be more accurate, Murdock discovered that the probability of recalling the first and last items on a list could be up to two times that of items in the middle of the list.
Example 1 – The last one wins
Talent contests are about the best performer being crowned the winner, right? Well, in reality, this may not always be the case. Research suggests that the recency effect can have a significant influence on the outcome of televised talent contests such as Idol and the Eurovision Song Contest.
In these types of contests, performances are presented sequentially before being subjected to a final evaluation by a panel of judges and/or a public vote. The judges and the viewers at home are tasked with deciding who gave the best performance based on its overall quality.
A study by Marco Haan, Gerhard Dijkstra and Peter Dijkstra7 looked at the extent to which the order of appearance of acts in the European Song Contest influenced the final rankings. Although the order in which acts perform in the Eurovision Song Contest is determined at random, the study showed that those who performed later in the contest did better on average. This ordering effect was found in both the judges voting during national contests and in the general public’s telephone voting during the final contest.
A later study, this time looking at the Idol series, also found systematic biases in the sequential evaluation of contestants’ performances. Behavioral scientists Lionel Page and Katie Page8 looked at data from the Idol series across 8 countries worldwide and found that the order of contestants can have a decisive role in the evaluation of their performances. While there was evidence of the primacy effect, the recency effect was stronger, with contestants performing in later positions receiving the most positive evaluations. The authors attribute this bias to the television viewer’s ability to remember each candidate.
Both studies shed light on the biases influencing performance evaluation. In both cases, the recency effect didn’t directly cause the last contestants to win. Rather, the position of the acts contributed to a bias in the judges’ or the public’s decision making.
Example 2 – Cake or broccoli?
Adults aren’t the only ones whose decision making is influenced by the recency effect. A pair of studies conducted by Emily Sumner et al.9 found that toddlers demonstrate a robust verbal recency effect when asked “or” questions such as ‘would you like some cake or some broccoli?’
In their first experiment, the researchers presented 24 one- to two-year-olds a game that required them to answer questions about two bears, one named Quinn and the other named Rori. The children had to answer several questions with two possible response options (‘should Rori bring a lunchbox or a backpack to school?’), which were later flipped (‘should Quinn bring a backpack or a lunchbox to school?). When the children responded verbally, over 85% of them chose the second choice.
To test their hypothesis that limited working memory contributed the children’s strong recency effect, the researchers conducted a second experiment using a novel words game. They found that the recency effect was stronger when words were longer, suggesting that working memory underlies this bias.
In light of their results, the authors suggest that some of children’s earliest utterances may be the result of the recency effect and not necessarily an indication that the child comprehends what they are saying.
What it is
The recency effect refers to our tendency to better remember and recall information presented most recently, compared to information encountered earlier. The recency effect is one of two components that make up the serial effect, a phenomenon which describes how the position of an item in a sequence can impact its memorability.
Why it happens
The recency effect primarily manifests in situations where individuals are presented with a sequence of information or stimuli. It is one of two memory recall biases that make up the serial position effect, a phenomenon which describes how the position of an item in a sequence or list can impact its memorability. The recency effect occurs due to the way information is processed and stored in short-term memory.
Example 1 – The last one wins
Research suggests that the recency effect can have a significant influence on the outcome of televised talent contests such as Idol and the Eurovision Song Contest. In two separate studies, ordering effects were found in the evaluation process, with acts performing later in the sequence doing better on average.
Example 2 – Cake or broccoli?
Children’s decision making is also impacted by the recency effect. When presented with “or” questions, such as ‘would you like some broccoli or some cake’, research shows that children will likely choose the second option.
How to avoid it
Unfortunately, we don’t have much control over the recency effect because it’s a function of our brain’s capacity to store information. However, by understanding what the recency effect is, how it influences our decision making and judgments, and what factors make it stronger, we can try to overcome it.
Related TDL articles
The serial position effect a phenomenon describes how our ability to remember information is affected by its position in a sequence. When we are given a list of items, we remember and recall the items at the beginning and end of the list better than those in the middle. Read this article to learn more about what the serial position effect is, why it happens, and how we can avoid it.
The recency effect is the opposite of the primacy effect which describes our tendency to remember the first piece of information we encounter better than the rest. Unlike the recency effect, the primacy effect is a function of how we store information in our long-term memory. Read this article to learn more about what the primacy effect is, why it happens, and how we can avoid it.