Primacy and Recency Effects

Primacy and Recency Effects

Where should you put the most important information – at the beginning, the middle, or at the end? According to the primacy and recency effects, information that comes first and last has the strongest effect. The primacy effect suggests that people are most influenced by the information that comes first. The recency effect is the reverse: the information that comes last sways the most.

Primacy Effect

As a rule, the primacy effect is the most potent. More than half of the century ago, Solomon Asch experimentally showed that the primacy effect usually carries the day. The subjects read one of two passages containing the same information only in reverse order:

  • John is intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious
  • John is envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, and intelligent

The subjects rated John more positively if the passage began with “intelligent”. Numerous subsequent experiments showed that the primacy effect usually prevails.

Recency Effect

Sometimes, however, information that comes last is the most persuasive. This recency effect occurs usually when the time gap separates two messages and people have to respond right after the second message is presented:

  • Week 1: Message A
  • Week 2: Message B
  • Week 2: People have to respond > Message B is more persuasive (recency)

Yet, even if the second message comes some time after the first one, but people don’t have to respond immediately, the primacy effect prevails:

  • Week 1: Message A
  • Week 2: Message B
  • Week 3: People have to respond > Message A is more persuasive (primacy)

Applications

Overall, it is a good idea to put vital bits of information first. The primacy effect works almost everywhere. One study, for example, showed that it works equally well in website design: the higher a link’s position in a list of links, the greater the probability that visitors will click on that link (although that study also found some evidence of the recency effects).

Sadly, many people often put the crux of their message anywhere but at the beginning. Many seasoned politicians, for example, often will kick off their arguments with trifles. Sometimes of course, a logical structure of the message makes it difficult to lead with the strong points. More often, however, it is a lack of appreciation of the primacy effect that leads to ineffective messages.

Sources:

  • Asch, S. E. (1946) Forming Impressions of Personality, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41: 258-290
  • Furnam, A. (1986). The robustness of the recency effect: Studies using legal evidence. The Journal of General Psychology, 113(4): 351-357
  • Murphy, J., Hofacker, C., & Mizerski, R. (2006). Primacy and recency effects on clicking behavior. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(2): 522-535.