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Science & Tech

How the Primacy Effect Impacts Your Memory

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 9, 2020 • 2 min read

Have you ever been tasked with a long list of assignments, only to find that you can only remember the first few items on your list? If so, you may have experienced a quirk of short-term memory quirk known as the primacy effect.

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What Is the Primacy Effect?

The primacy effect is a phenomenon wherein a person only remembers the first few entries in a list of items. Psychologists include the primacy effect as part of a larger condition called the serial-position effect. The serial-position effect describes how a person's free recall of a long list of words or phrases will show bias toward the beginning of a list (the primacy effect) and the end of a list (the recency effect), forgetting items from the middle of the list.

In 1913, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was the first to describe the serial-position effect on human memory, along with the primacy effect's role within that broader phenomenon. In ensuing years, researchers writing in publications like the Journal of Experimental Psychology have explored the serial-position effect, the primacy effect, the recency effect, and other related phenomena like the continuity effect and lag-recency effect.

Why Is It Important to Understand the Primacy Effect

Understanding the primacy effect can help you ensure that you or others remember essential information. For instance, when you want another person to remember a piece of information, you can strategically place it in the first position on a list of items; the primacy effect suggests initial items will implant in memory more easily than later items.

Advertising agencies take advantage of the primacy effect when they structure commercials and print advertisements. They may front-load important information—even beginning with the single most important message of the ad. They may also place key information at the end of advertisements which, per the recency effect, also correlates to a higher likelihood of recall.

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What Causes the Primacy Effect?

While German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was able to describe the primacy effect in 1913, his work does not conclude which behavioral, chemical, or biological functions account for its existence in short-term memory and long-term memory. Over ensuing decades, psychologists have delved further into the topic.

In 1977, William Crano, writing in journals like Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, studied the connection between the primacy effect and the recency effect, and he found that (among other things) people paid more attention early in a presentation, which would suggest they also innately gave more focus to items at the beginning of the list. In 1980 Dewey Rundus, writing in the journal Memory & Cognition, examined how human attempts to rehearse memorized lists may influence the primacy effect; repeatedly rereading the list from the beginning solidifies the first items in the person’s memory.

An Example of the Primacy Effect

A real-life example of the primacy effect frequently occurs in the job interview and hiring processes: A hiring manager’s first impression of a candidate plays an outsized role in whether they will offer the applicant a job. The first things you present to a potential employer—your resume, the way you dress, your initial salutation—set the tone for the overall hiring process. The primacy effect suggests that first impressions are important factors in establishing a new relationship because they may end up being the primary thing an employer remembers about you. By putting the utmost care into the first message you send, you can use the primacy effect for your own long-term benefit.

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