Recency Effect and Primacy Effect

The recency effect and primacy effect are both parts of the serial position effect, which predicts how items from a list are remembered, based on their position in that list. The first and last items on a list are generally remembered the best.

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Recency Effect definition

The Recency Effect is the principle that the most recently presented items will most likely be remembered best. If you hear a long list of words, it is more likely that you will remember the words you heard last rather than words that occurred in the middle.

One explanation for the recency effect is that these items are still present in working memory. An additional explanation for the recency effect is related to the context: if tested immediately after rehearsal, the current temporal context can serve as a retrieval cue, which would predict more recent items to have a higher likelihood of recall.

The recency effect occurs more commonly when the response options are given orally. This is thought to be because when the respondent is listening to all of the options, the later options disrupt the respondent’s consideration of earlier options.

Primacy Effect definition

The Primacy Effect occurs when you're more likely to remember words at the beginning of a list.

A suggested reason for the primacy effect is that the initial items presented are most effectively stored in long-term memory because of the greater amount of processing devoted to them. (The first list item can be rehearsed by itself; the second must be rehearsed along with the first, the third along with the first and second, and so on.) The primacy effect is enhanced when presented slowly. Longer lists have been found to reduce the primacy effect.

The primacy effect is most evident when answers are shown visually. Options that are presented later tend to not be considered in the same way as the earlier options.

Minimizing primacy effect and recency effect in your survey

In order to reduce survey bias arising from the primacy and recency effect, the easiest thing you can do is to randomize the answer options. The shuffle answers feature changes the order of the answer options for each respondent, so when analyzing all response data, you’ll be able to see the average behavior.

From the graph below you can see where both effects occur. The recency effect is often stronger, especially when the length of the list increases.

recency effect

Recency effect and primacy effect example

Use this list of random words to test out the recency and primacy effect. Try reading it out to someone nearby, and see which words they remember the best. When the list is read out, there will be a tendency to recall the later words better, the recency effect. To test out the primacy effect, show someone the list of words, and then remove the list and ask them to recall the words. Since the list was presented to them in a visual manner, they saw the words rather than hearing them, the primacy effect is likely to be more apparent and the earlier words are likely to be remembered better.


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Vincent is the author of this solution article.

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