Primary and Recency Effect: Start with a bang or save the best for last?

August 13, 2014

By: Anna Agoncillo

Do you remember your first love, first kiss, first date and all the other firsts you see in those cliché Hollywood romantic movies starred by Julia Roberts, Leonardo diCaprio, Ryan Gosling and Rachel Mcadams (no offense though, I’m a chick flick junkie myself)
How about your recent memories with your current special someone; do you still remember where was your last date, what you wore on that day, and all the other details associated with it?
I have asked a couple of people on what they’ve recalled during their current and previous relationship experiences. Hold your horses, I shall discuss the results later on. :P

Serial Position Effect

Some of you may clearly remember the first experiences, while some might focus more on the recent experiences but only a few would remember what happened in between. Which brings us to the theory called the “Serial Position Effect”. Serial Position effect, a term coined by Hermann Ebbinghaus, is the tendency of an individual to recall the first and last items best and the middle items the worst (Wikipedia, 2014). There are two main terms to remember namely: primacy or first experiences and recency or the last experiences. 

The primacy effect is a type of cognitive bias wherein the subjects recall the earliest information better rather than the latter information presented (Coleman, 2006). In contrary, recency effect is when the subjects recall the last information presented better. This is due to the highly accessible short term memory.

First or last love?
With all these in mind, I’ve asked a few people about what they've recalled about their previous and current relationships. Is timing really everything?

Majority of the subjects seemed to recall the memories with the recent special someone better and in more vibrant detail. One even remembered the exact food they’ve had on their last date namely: nachos, sausages and mojitos (haha such a fun date). Most of all, there were more positive emotions and significance associated with the recent relationships.

Here are some of their answers:

Me: “Tell me about your last love/boyfriend, what was the most significant memory you have of him?”

1: I was 22 then, i can still remember our first monthsary, he gave me card and as i open it, small pieces of heart-shaped confetti flew (:”> that will surely blew me away, so sweet). He is my husband now.
2: He kissed me that night, and I was wearing a supergirl costume (are you made of Kryptonite because being around you makes my knees weak #cornypickup). 
3: He slept late the other day, but he still had time to buy food for me and to send me to work (that’s real love right there).
4: All i remember is we had lots of things in common, we share one love, our love of music (ohh to be young and in-love).

Me: “Tell me about your first love/boyfriend,how old were you then?”

1: I was 7, I laughed at all his jokes even if they are not funny at all. 
2: He was a clown (not literally haha). He can really make me laugh.
3: I was his cheerleader, I would go and support him even if I had a test to study that day.
4: It was okay, I was mostly pressured by my peers to go out with him. We weren’t so sweet, we were just right.
5: I was 14, I learned the most from him, he broke my heart first.

It’s very obvious that the feelings and the things said recently are still fresh in the short term memory, which is why they can remember it more in detail. But what are the other implications of serial positions in other areas of life?


In Politics

Experienced voters are influenced by the candidates’ first campaign impressions, prior projects and experiences, while Occasional voters who are more influenced by a campaign message delivered closer to Election Day (Panagopoulos, 2010.)

(Results on Politics: Draw between Primacy and Recency!)

In Attention

In a recent study, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) was used to identify the behavioral and neural signatures of the brain in order to know which among the primacy and recency effect would yield more significant alterations in the brain activity (Morrison et al., 2014). Results show that activity in the frontal lobe was increased due to primacy effects but only on specific task-demands while no brain activity was significantly altered by the recency effects.

(Results on Attention: Lead favoring Primacy!)

In Television

The sequence of when the commercial was shown can influence the consumers’ behaviors. Research has shown that television viewers are more likely to recall advertisements placed at the end of a commercial break than the ones shown at the start (Duncan & Murdock, 2000).

(Results on Television: Lead favoring Recency!)

In Search-engines

Netizens showed an increase tendency to clicking the first and the last links on the page list (Murphy et al., 2006).

One could ask then, are the early first positions popular because consumers are more likely to click on links at the top of the page, or do online managers tend to put their best links early in the link sequence? One thing is for sure though, the results are arranged in decreasing order of relevance (Drèze and Zufryden, 2004).

(Results on Search-engines: Draw between Primacy and Recency!)

Parting thoughts

Both first and last experiences play an important part in one’s life, but if I were to choose which one weighs more, I would say it's the recent memories. The only certain thing in this world is change (as cliché as this might sound). We cannot do anything about our past (it's done); however, what we can control is how to improve our present selves by applying what we've previously learned. To become better versions of ourselves, we must become fully engaged in the moment----live now!
"With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
But that's just my opinion. Ultimately it depends on the individual’s maturity, social environment, what he/she considers as important (i.e., money, time, priorities), and one’s overall personality.

In the end, you’ll have to ask yourself: which memory should you keep, the first or the last? Should you start with a bang or save the best for last?

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Coleman, A (2006). Dictionary of Psychology (Second Edition). Oxford University Press.

Drèze, X., & Zufryden, F. (2004). The measurement of online visibility and its impact on Internet traffic. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 18(1), 20–37.

Duncan, M., & Murdock, B. (2000). Recognition and recall with precueing and postcuing. Journal of Memory and Language, 42(3), 301–313.
Forgas, J. (2011). Can negative affect eliminate the power of first impressions? Affective influences on primacy and recency effects in impression formation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(2), 425–429
Morrison, A., Conway, A., & Chein, J. (2014). Primacy and recency effects as indices of the focus of attention. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Retrieved from
Murphy, J., Hofacker C. & Mizerski, R. (2006). Primacy and recency effects on clicking behavior. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11 (2), 522–535

Panagopoulos, C. (2010). Timing Is Everything? Primacy and Recency Effects in Voter Mobilization Campaigns. Political Behavior, 33(1), 79-93

Wikipedia. (2014). Serial Position Effect. Retrieved from Thank you for reading! :) P.S. Thank you Angel Agoncillo for proofreading this article. :*

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    1. Hi @nakedneurons, thank you for your kinds words and interest to follow. I've attached the follow widget now, please feel free to follow me :D Thank you so much. Would do the same for you, all the best!


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