What it is
The serial position effect describes our tendency to remember information that is at the beginning or end of a series, but find it harder to recall information in the middle of the series.
Why it happens
The serial position effect occurs because of a combination of the primacy effect and the recency effect. The primary effect makes it easier to remember items at the beginning of a list because it is easy to process and it gets stored in our long-term memory. The recency effect makes it easier to remember items at the end of a list because they get stored in a short-term memory.
Example 1 – Linguistic knowledge and the serial position effect
Bilingual speakers show the serial position effect in both their primary and their secondary language, suggesting that better linguistic knowledge does not help completely overcome the serial position effect. However, bilingual speakers show an expanded primacy effect in recall for their native language as they can remember more items at the beginning and middle of a list than in their secondary language. Linguistic knowledge helps expand the primacy effect, which in turn reduces the serial position effect.
Example 2 – User interfaces
When we browse the internet or applications, we often encounter a lot of information that we are supposed to remember. That can include video games and online shopping. By being aware of the serial position effect, user interface designers should organize information on their interface in a manner that makes it easiest for users to remember it. That includes limiting the amount of information users are presented with through guides and filters, and putting the most information at the beginning and end of the experience.
How to avoid it
It is difficult to avoid the serial position effect, because we would have to change how our memory works. Instead, we should try to be aware of the serial position effect in order to optimize how we ingest information. That can include position important information at the beginning and end of a list, or switching up the order of items in a list so that each item has a better chance of being remembered due to the primacy effect and the recency effect.