The Primacy and Recency Effect—Explained

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Art of Thinking Clearly" by Rolf Dobelli. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the primacy and recency effect? Why do we tend to remember the first and the last items well, and the middle ones poorly?

The primacy and recency effect (also known as the serial-position effect) is the tendency to recall the first and the last items in a series well, and the middle ones poorly. There’s no consensus as to why this phenomenon occurs, but there are a couple of theories.

Keep reading to learn about the primacy and recency effect, why it occurs, and how to overcome it.

The Primacy and Recency Effect

According to Dobelli, the primacy effect means that the first piece of information you’re introduced to is easier to remember than information introduced later. This is because your brain latches onto that first information and holds it in your short-term memory for longer than usual. This extended stay in short-term memory allows the information to move to long-term memory.

While the primacy effect can extend information’s stay in your short-term memory, it can’t keep it there forever, Dobelli explains. Humans have small short-term memories, so when a new piece of information enters, an older piece of information has to leave. When enough time has passed that the primacy effect stops working and the first piece of information you hear leaves your short-term memory, the recency effect takes over. This means that whatever information you heard most recently is easier to remember. This effect operates entirely in your short-term memory. 

(Shortform note: As long as the information is available in your short-term memory, it’s easier to recall. However, because short-term memory generally holds information for less than a minute, the recency effect is only effective for brief periods of time.)

How do you overcome the primacy and recency effect? Dobelli suggests paying close attention to each individual piece of information you learn so that information you gain in the middle of a situation doesn’t get crowded out of your memory by the first or last things you learn.

(Shortform note: While it’s a good idea to lessen the primacy and recency effect, you can also manipulate them to your benefit. When trying to memorize something, focus on the most important information first to trigger the primacy effect and transfer the information to your long-term memory. Second, review the information shortly before you need it to trigger the recency effect.)

How the Primacy and Recency Effect Works

There are two theories of how the primacy and recency effect works. As noted, Dobelli ascribes to the first of these theories, which states that the operation of the short- and long-term memories causes the effect.

In the second theory, the effects rely on the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the section of your brain directly behind your forehead, and it’s responsible for your focus, as well as forming and retrieving memories. These functions are linked: Memories form around things you focus on. 

According to this theory, the primacy and recency effect occurs because you’re most likely to pay attention during the beginning or end of experiences, thus activating your frontal lobe and forming memories. Meanwhile, you lose focus during the middle of an experience, which means the frontal lobe is not activated and memories don’t form.

The Primacy and Recency Effect—Explained

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  • A detailed look at the most common logical fallacies that inhibit decision-making
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  • Why you value things for arbitrary reasons

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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