What is the Serial Position Effect?
The serial position effect is a psychological phenomenon in which an individual is more likely to remember the first and last items of the list than the middle items. For example, you have made your shopping list on which you have mentioned various items such as chocolates, milk, cheese, eggs, and toothpaste. Later, you reach the grocery store, and you realized that you forget your shopping list at home. You may have had observed that you are more likely to remember the first and the last items of your list, i.e., chocolates and toothpaste, and you may find it difficult to recall the other items. Of course, this would not be the case in every situation, but the chances of remembering the first and the last information is more than remembering the middle information. The serial position effect describes the impact of the position of the data in any sequence on our ability to store information in the memory.
Explanation of Serial Position Effect
The term ‘Serial Position Effect’ was formulated by a German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1964. He strongly emphasised that the information is stored in our memory according to the way it is presented to us. To understand the relation between the position of the particular information in the list and the recalling ability, Ebbinghaus conducted several studies on himself. The experiments that he conducted are mentioned in his book ‘Memory: A contribution to Experimental Psychology.’ He used to listen to his previously tapped recordings of random syllables. He then tried to remember these words. He found that he was easily able to recall the words present in the beginning and the ending of the list as compared to the middle words of the list, which he named as the serial position effect. Ebbinghaus’s work on the serial position effect also supports Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin’s model of three stages of memory. According to Atkinson and Shiffrin’s three stages model of memory, there exist three stores of memory, i.e., a sensory register, short-term memory, and long-term memory. Ebbinghaus proposed that the serial position effect includes two effects, i.e., the primacy effect and the recency effect. These two effects provide a detailed explanation of our ability to recall the learned information, and they are closely related to Atkinson and Shiffrin’s three-stage memory model. Let us discuss these two effects.
1. The Primacy Effect
According to the primary effect, an individual is more likely to recall the information that he/she was presented first, i.e., the information present on the top of the list. According to Atkinson and Shiffrin’s three-stage memory model, the information is usually stored in the long term memory of the person in case of primacy effect. Most of the researchers has tried to understand the phenomenon of the primacy effect through the technique of free recall; it is a technique to measure the ability of the person to recall the information, attention, and memory of the person. In this method, a long list of random words is given to the participants to learn them. It is observed that when the list is given to the participants, they repeat the items on the list to themselves to learn the words, and when the new items are added to the list they continue to repeat the old items along with the new items to retain them in their memory. The participants usually repeat the words in the sequence as they are present on the list, and they continue to rehearse the items until the information is stored in their long term memory. It is found that the primacy effect has more impact on the recalling abilities when there is a greater time in between the demonstration of the items as it provides more time to the participant to learn the previous items.
A study based on the free recall technique was conducted in 1962 by Bennet Murdock to understand the primacy effect. In this study, the participants were provided with a list of 40 words. They were told to learn as many words as they can. The figure below represents the graphical representation of the words remembered by the participants when they were asked for the presentation after some significant time.
As seen from the image above, the probability of remembering the first few words is higher, it decreases for the middle words and then again it increases at the end. The number of words in the list were also changed later, and it was found that no matter that whether there are 10 words in the list or 40 words. The probability of recalling the first few words is more than the middle words. Hence, the conclusion of the study supported the primacy effect. The impact of the Primacy effect can be understood through another study conducted by the researchers. In this study, the participants were provided one of the two sentences. Let us consider one of the examples; one group was given the sentence that a girl named Janice is an intelligent, smart, diligent, critical, narcissist and jealous girl, and the other group was provided with the sentence that Janice is a jealous, narcissistic, critical, smart, and intelligent girl. Although the meaning of both the sentences is the same, both the sentences represent different traits. At the beginning of the sentences, the first sentence represents the positive traits while the last sentence represents the negative traits. After concluding the research it was found that the first group evaluated Janice more positively as compared to the second group. This is also following the primacy effect.
2. The Recency Effect
According to the recency effect, an individual is more likely to recall the items that are presented to him/her more recently, i.e., the information present at the end of the list. For example, you have learned something, and you are immediately asked to give the test of what you have learned. You are more probable to remember the information that you have just learned, and you may struggle to recall the information that you read first or in the middle. The recency effect is not as long-lasting as the primacy effect. It is stated that the words present at the starting of the list are more probable to store in the long term memory, and the word present at the end of the list are more probable to store in the short term memory. The storage capacity of the data stored in the short term memory is quite limited, hence, when the person is distracted for a while after he/she had learned the given piece of data, then the recency effect may fade away. Hence, if the person does not rehearse the given information repeatedly, it may get lost. This can be understood from the following example.
Glanzer and Cunitz, which are considered the pioneer of the recency effect conducted a study in 1966. In this study, 240 participants were provided with a list consisting of different words and asked to learn these words. When they were asked for the presentation, as expected, the words at the starting and the end of the list were more remembered by the participants than the words in the middle of the list. Glanzer and Cunitz did not end up here, they conducted further research. They separated the participants into two groups of 120 each. The first group was referred to as the control group and the second group is the experiment group. When the men in the second group learned the words given in the list, they were provided with a 30-seconds random task. The primary function of this 30-second task was to distract the men and interrupt the words store in their short term memory. When the results were concluded, it was found that both the control group and the experimental groups showed the involvement of the serial position effect, but the way these groups recalled the words was significantly different. It was found that the group that was not distracted, i.e., the control group shows an almost equal probability of remembering the starting words and the end words of the list than the words in the middle of the list. However, the group that was distracted with the 30-sec task, i.e., the experimental group was more likely to remember the starting words of the list as compared to the words in the middle and the end of the list. Although the end words of the list were still easier to recall than the middle words, they were not as easier to recall as the words at the starting of the list.
By deeply analysing the results obtained by the different studies on serial position effect, it is found that the serial position effect is influenced by the two conditions, which are:
- The recency effect overcomes the primacy effect when the list contains a large number of items. As the most recent information is stored in the short term memory and one can easily recall it as compared to the previously stored first and the middle items of the list.
- If the gap between the learning and the presentation is greater, then the primary effect is stronger than the recency effect. This is because the information that is learned first, gets stored in the long term memory, while the last read information or the information in the middle of the list gets stored in the short term memory, which may get blurred as it fades due to the addition of the new information in the short term memory due to the larger gap between learning and presentation.
Real-life Examples of Serial Position Effect
The serial position effect is widely used in the world of marketing. If you want to present your ideas, product or service to someone that may leave a long-lasting and positive impact on them, then it is more advisable to put your most important piece of information at either the first or the last, and the least important information should be mentioned in the middle of the document. Another trick that is also very beneficial is that if the person/client has to make the decision right after reading the document then the most important information should be placed at the end, and if the person is deciding after significant time after reading the document, it is better to place the most important piece of information at the top. This is due to the significance of the primacy effect and the recency effect with respect to the time gap.
2. Restaurant Menus
The serial position effect is often used by most restaurants to tempt customers to choose menu items that are costly and highly profitable to the restaurant. The menu items are placed in such a manner that overpriced items may not seem that overpriced psychologically. For example, if the highly-priced items are placed at the top of the menu, then the price of the first item will remain stuck in the person’s mind and he/she will browse the rest of the menu keeping the price of the first dish in mind. This makes the person feel other items on the menu are less costly, which otherwise may seem overpriced. The following image shows the menu of the Balthazar, a restaurant in New York, which uses the serial position effect, and follows a similar pattern as explained in the example.
3. Order of Products in Supermarkets
The serial position effect is also utilized in the arrangements of the product in the supermarkets. Those items that generate more revenue or are more popular are usually kept at either the front or the end side of each section. A study conducted by Australian researchers showed that a tent that was placed first, in the section was preferred around 250% more by the people than the other tents.
4. Webpages Designing
The serial position effect is also used in designing the interactive web pages of your website. It’s mainly used on the home pages, where the visitors land the first, and they get to know the kind of services the business is providing. The careful designing of the home pages can let the potential clients deeply interact with the website, which may eventually boost your business. The unique qualities and strengths of the brand are generally placed at the starting of the homepage due to the impact of the primacy effect. The testimonials of the customers and important certifications are placed at the end of the web page to positively impact the readers; this is in accordance with the recency effect. The un-competitive or the negative features of the products or the services should be mentioned in the middle of the homepages. The understanding of the serial position effect helps the web designer to make better user interfaces.
5. Product Reviews
The serial position effect comes into play when you buy any product from any company. For example, one usually get to know about the brand through advertisements. If the ad is catchy enough, the primacy effect comes into play and stores the ad content into your memory, and when you go for buying that product the company’s advertisement stays in your brain, which mainly involves the positive aspects of the product. Well, chances are that you may also do some research before buying the product, say asking for reviews from your friend who used the product and visiting the company’s website to check out the reviews of the product. The top positive reviews of the products are usually placed at the top of the other reviews to make a positive impact on the customers.
6. Learning Techniques
When one is aware of the serial position effect, it may become easier to remember certain study materials, presentations or messages. You might have faced this problem that while learning any content in points format, you only remember the first few points or the last few points and tend to forget the middle points. This problem can be solved by learning the content by shuffling the points. One can easily memorize anything by rearranging the order of the material that you have learned. While studying, the 10 minutes break after every 20 minutes of learning is considered the best approach for learning. After the 20 minutes learning session, you are more likely to remember first and the last few minutes of your studying. The ten mutes break to reset the learning sessions and ageing after the next 20 minutes session you’ll remember the first and the last few minutes. If you won’t take any break then study for around three hours straight, you’ll again remember the first and the last few minutes of your study and the majority of the middle part that you have studied will fall into the blurred region. The middle part of the study falling in the blur region is significantly low in the case of the 20 minutes learning sessions with the ten minutes break. The method of using mnemonics is also a good way to memorize something.
It is observed that in online search engines, the primacy effect is more prominent. It was found that the first two advertisements were best ranked in search engine marketing. Ad ranking is directly linked to click-through rates. Hence, one can enhance his/her business by opting for the top positions for the advertisements. A study conducted in 2006 found that the marketing links were clicked the most by the readers when they were placed at either the top or the bottom of the webpage.
8. Real Estate
When people look for any property or home to buy, they often reject the first options that they see, i.e., the primacy effect often does not play much important role in real estate. Keeping this trend in view, the property agents often save the best option for the last. The expectations of the customers lower after seeing various properties, which usually makes the last option more preferable than the previously seen options. The last seen option remains in the short term memory of the buyer and upon comparing with the previously seen options the buyer is most likely to choose the last option only.
The role of the serial position effect is commonly seen in e-commerce platforms. Imagine when you were scrolling through the different pages of your favourite e-commerce website, you like a shirt and then keep on searching the other related options. You compare every other option with the first shirt you liked, and chances are that you end up buying that particular shirt only.
10. Pharmaceutical Advertisements
As per the laws, pharmaceutical companies are required to provide the possible side effects of the drugs to the consumers. The pharmaceutical companies use the serial position effect to reveal these side effects to the customers. Remember when you last saw the drug advertisement, it usually starts with the person suffering from the pain, who takes the medicine and instantly feels relieved. The primacy effect acts here, which entice the customers to think that the drug is very effective. After this, they list the number of side effects of that drug such as headaches, nausea and so on, but as you are already primed with the benefits of the drug you’ll pay less attention to these side effects, and the side effect of the drug won’t store much in your memory. This is the reason why the negative aspects of the drugs are always kept in the middle of the advertisements. These ads usually end up with the positive impact of the particular drug in your life and they encourage you to take doctor’s permission before consumption. Here, the recency effect comes into play and this build’s the consumer’s trust in that drug or the company.
11. Purchasing Decisions
The order of stimulus directly impacts the purchasing decision by the customer. It is observed that the recency effect influences the customers more than the primacy effect when there are sales on items like clothes, food, or other regular households items. For example, you see a blazer on the 50% sale, which may attract you, and you try that blazer, you may buy it if you’ll like it. On the other hand, you see a blazer, loves it and try it. Later, you see the tag that it is at a 50% discount, chances are high that you will buy that blazer. This happens due to the influence of the recency effect.
Can We Avoid the Serial Position Effect?
One can not avoid the serial position effect as this is the way our memory works, but we can utilize the serial position effect for our benefit by understanding the way we ingest information and the working of the serial position effect. As already discussed in the examples above, this may include putting important information at either the top or the end of the list or shuffling the order of the items to better memorize each item. One can smartly choose the better goods or services by keeping in mind the various marketing gimmicks based on the serial position effect.