Be first or be forgotten: the power of the primacy effect

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

This is part of our series on biases in the workplace. A full list of bias blog posts can be found here: If you're biased and you know it clap your hands.


You’re more likely to choose the first options presented to you, whether you’re voting or deciding what to eat.


You’re more likely to remember the first things on a list, whether you’re going shopping or learning new words.


And you’re more likely to underestimate someone’s ability if you first see them performing poorly, even if they go on to perform well in front of you.


All these responses are because of the primacy effect, a bias that helps us solve the problems of what we should remember, and the need to act fast.


So what?


Understanding the primacy effect can help you mitigate its impact on your own decision making and others. Let’s look at some of those scenarios to see how this works.

Voting and vegetarianism are affected by the primacy effect

Biases have power beyond personal behaviours and choices. Collectively, our biases can have significant impact.


We see the impact of the primacy effect in electoral ballots. Candidates whose names appear at the top of the list have been shown to have greater chance of being elected (van Erkel & Thijssen). This has nothing to do with how fit they are for office; it is simply the result of people making their choice from the first options presented to them. The primacy effect is solving those two big problems our brains face in the polling booth: what do we have to remember? How fast can we get out?


Voter ID cards from the 2017 and 2020 NZ elections
How far down the ballot paper did I look?

We tell ourselves that these are careful decisions, made with due consideration of all the evidence. But our brains are always looking for the simple solution. As someone with the surname Vincent, I’m taking this as another disincentive to standing for public office.


In case you are wondering, New Zealand’s Electoral Act 1993 describes the Form of ballot papers for general elections, with candidates listed alphabetically by surname.



How can the primacy effect impact vegetarianism? By helping people choose vegetarian options from a menu simply by placing them above the meat options. An experiment in a university cafeteria showed the order of choices on a fixed price menu affected the consumption of meat (Andersson & Nelander).

Deciding what to eat is not a protracted process, it is something we do multiple times every day, it usually goes fast, works effectively without major effort invested and is a relatively mindless action of ours.

Andersson & Nelander


This example offers hope to anyone who sees the connection between meat eating and global warming – it also points to how we can use the primacy effect to influence other behaviour.


What choices do you offer in your workplace, for development, for working hours, for wellbeing? Which choices are presented first, and what impact does that have?

Shopping and learning are affected by the primacy effect

In my house, the shopping list often begins with coffee – it is top of mind. We drink it every day and we buy it every week. I can even visualise where the coffee is in the supermarket. What came first? The shopping list or the caffeine addiction?


Coffee pot on stove top and cup on bench
The coffee is on!


Herbs and spices get relegated to the bottom of the list – afterthoughts prompted by specific recipes. And in the supermarket, I’m looking at soap before I realise I didn’t get cumin seeds or tarragon.


My problem of what to remember is not helped by the supermarket layout. That is shaped to trigger other impulses. And to make me take products from the eye-level shelves and end of aisle displays, because these are the products with greatest profit margin for the supermarket.


Language teachers can use the primacy effect to increase the chance students will learn particular words. The words at the beginning of a word list are more likely to be learned, so teachers can exploit this by placing key (or challenging) words near the top (Sabudu).


The end of the list is also peak memory territory, and this is because of the recency effect. What we see last, or most recently, also stays with us.


…because items at the beginnings and ends of lists serve as cognitive landmarks that provide anchors to which the other items may be attached in memory

(Mayer quoted in Sabudu)


I can try and use the primacy effect to manage my caffeine consumption and improve my cooking by putting herbal tea and turmeric at the top of my list. Or I could put these items at the end of my list to exploit the recency effect, but I might still have to re-trace my steps from the soap aisle.

First impressions count

The primacy effect means we prefer the first option we are presented with. It means we’re more likely to remember the first thing on a list. And it means we’ll hold on to first impressions despite subsequent experiences being different.


It turns out your parents were right when they told you to polish your shoes and brush your hair for important occasions. That first impression of you, all shiny and groomed, stayed with the people you met.

Anyone with something to sell knows and exploits the power of first impressions. Steve Jobs applied it expertly in his launch and presentations of Apple products, showing them as innovative, sleek, and desirable.


Pre-teen girl in school photo
That hair certainly makes an impression.

We also form first impressions from performance. A 1985 experiment shows how quickly we attribute ability, or lack of it. A group of students were asked to mark the first half of multi choice exam papers. All the papers had 15 of 30 responses correct, but half had the correct answers for early questions with the other half having the correct answers for later questions (McAndrew).


The marking students were then asked to predict results for the second half of the paper and attribute ability. Those with early correct answers were judged to have greater ability. Those with later correct answers were judged to have lesser ability, despite having exactly the same overall result.


Think about this experiment next time you observe a new colleague doing something for the first time. How realistic is it that they’ll deliver perfectly? How useful is it for you to judge them on that early attempt?


Like all biases, the primacy effect has some benefits. It stops us using brain capacity for routine things. Is it stopping you from making considered decisions, trying new things, or getting to know the true extent of others’ ability?



New blog feature: Bias breakdown

We want to make this real and practical for you. There have been over 180 cognitive biases identified. In a series of blogs we'll explore specific, individual biases, how they show up in our lives/workplaces, and what we can do about it.


If you're interested in hearing about a specific bias, comment below or connect with us to share your thoughts!




References

Andersson, O. & Nelander, F. (2021) ‘Nudge the Lunch: A Field Experiment Testing Menu-Primacy Effects on Lunch Choices’. Games 2021, 12 (1), 2 https://doi.org/10.3390/g12010002


Huet, S. & Deffuant, G. (2014) ‘When do interactions increase or decrease primacy effect?’ https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242074133


McAndrew, Francis T. (1985) ‘A Classroom Demonstration of the Primacy Effect in the Attribution of Ability’. Teaching of Psychology, December 1985


Sabudu, Delli. (2019) ‘The Investigation into Primacy Effect on Student’s Vocabulary Memorization’. Celtic: A Journal of Culture, English Language Teaching, Literature and Linguistics Vol. 6, No. 1, June 2019, .pp.21-30.


van Erkel, Patrick & Thijssen, Peter. (2017). De eerste wint: het primacy-effect ontleed. ‘The first one wins: distilling the primacy effect’ Res Publica. 59. 233-235.