What is the Serial Position Effect?

Have you ever gone to the grocery store and forgotten the one thing you can in for, but managed to buy everything else on the list? 

Or have you ever noticed that at a fashion show the most famous models open and close the show?

And everyone knows it’s important to make a strong first impression if you want to have a strong relationship with a boss or a coworker. 

Why?

It’s down to a behavioral science principle called the Serial Position Effect.


What is the Serial Position Effect?

The Serial Position Effect says that people are more likely to remember items that appear at the beginning or end. Anything that’s in the middle of a list is harder to remember. 

This effect was first described by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 1800s. Ebbinghaus found that when he tried to recall a list of nonsense syllables, he could remember the ones at the beginning and end better than those in the middle. He named these findings the “Primacy” and “Recency” Effects: 

  • Primacy Effect: It’s easy to remember things at the beginning of a list
  • Recency Effect: It’s easy to remember things at the end of a list.

Source: Creative Commons Wikipedia

Other researchers have since replicated Ebbinghaus’s findings and extended them to different types of material, including words, numbers, pictures, and even music. The serial position effect occurs with both short-term and long-term memory.


What Causes the Serial Position Effect?

When we hear someone reading a list of items, we don’t bother paying attention to the middle items because we assume we’ll be able to remember those those things anyway — that’s the Primacy Effect. 

The Recency Effect is due to something called the “Availability Heuristic.” It says that our brains tend to make decisions based on two kinds of information:

  • A recent memory
  • A vivid memory

Our brain thinks things that have happened recently or stand out in our minds are more likely to happen again. It’s because things that have just happened are top of mind, so it comes to mind quickly and easily. When an event is easier to remember, it becomes easier to imagine it happening again.

When an event is easier to remember, it becomes easier to imagine it happening again.

But there are limits to the Recency Effect. If too much time passes between hearing the list and trying to remember it, we may not be able to recall the items at the end as well as we thought. That’s because they’ve had time to fade from our memory.


How to Apply the Serial Position Effect

The Serial Position Effect has important implications for marketing because it can affect what we remember about an ad or a piece of marketing. 


How Marketers Use the Primacy Effect:

  • Kick-Off an Ad with a Bang: Marketers often try to take advantage of the Primacy Effect by starting their commercials with a memorable image or phrase. They want viewers to remember the beginning of the commercial when the most important information is presented.
  • Pitching a Product: Salespeople often start pitches with a memorable opening line to grab the customer’s attention and make a good first impression.
  • Designing a Digital Experience: Users are more likely to click on links that appear at the top or bottom of a page than those in the middle of the page. That’s because we tend to scan web pages in an “F” pattern, starting at the top left and then moving down the page.


How Marketers Use the Recency Effect:

  • Call to Action: Many commercials and other types of advertising end with a call to action. It encourages viewers to do something — usually buy the product or remember a deal. 
  • Brand Recall (Mental Availability): Even if an ad skips a clear call to action and just shows the brand’s logo, the Recency Effect makes it easier for customers to choose or remember the brand. 
  • Overestimating the importance of a sale: Because of the Recency Effect, people overweigh the importance of the most recent information they’ve heard or seen. So if a brand clearly states that a product is in high demand or running out of stock, people can be more willing to pay for it. 


Real-Life Examples of the Serial Position Effect

You might notice the Serial Position Effect at work in the world around you. For example: 

  • In court, witnesses are often asked to give their testimony in chronological order. This is because jurors are more likely to remember the beginning and end of the testimony than the middle.
  • Amazon designed its website so that the most topical and trending products can be viewed at the top of their site. Current deals are placed in the middle while recommendations based on your browsing history can be seen at the end.


The Bottom Line

Now that you’re familiar with the Serial Position Effect, start thinking about how you can apply it. Here are a few examples: 

  • Strong opening statements: When giving a presentation, start with a strong opening statement that will grab your audience’s attention. Then end a presentation with the three most important takeaways.
  • Study the hardest material first: If you’re studying for an exam, start by reviewing the material that you’re having the most trouble with. This will help ensure that you remember the most important information when you take the test.
  • Put the most important information first: When taking notes, make sure to put the most important information at the beginning and end of your notes. This will help you remember it better when you review them later.

If you want to apply this effect to your customer experience, start by asking yourself a few questions: 

  • What are the most important details you want people to remember? Where are they located on your page or in an ad? It might be product features, price, or product benefits. Think carefully about where these are positioned. 
  • Where are these details located now? Are they at the start and end of your front page? Or are they being lost in somewhere in the middle?
  • How likely are people to get to the last item in a list? If your website’s landing page is too complicated, they might never make it to the end of your digital list.
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