Exploring The Recency Effect

We are all biased, even if we don’t think we are.

If we flip a coin and I say, “Heads or tails?”, are you more likely to say “Heads”?

One study found this to be the case and this shows the primacy effect.

The primacy effect describes the tendency for information that we learn first to be weighted more heavily than is information that we learn later.

Solomon Asch (1946) illustrated this in his research whereby participants learned some traits about a person and then made judgments about him. One half of the participants saw this list of traits:

  • Intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious

The other half of the participants saw this list:

  • Envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent

Both lists contain the same words but in reverse order but does this make a difference?

You might think that people would form the same impression given that the list of words is the same. But listing the positive and negative traits does make a difference. Negative traits have a large effect on our impressions of others.

Asch found that those who heard the first list, in which the positive traits came first, formed much more favourable impressions than did those who heard the second list. Other research has found that in elections, the candidate who is listed first on a voting paper was elected more than 70% of the time.

Is it always good to be first? Not always. Sometimes the information that comes last can be most influential and this is known as the recency effect. de Bruin (2005) found that in competitions such as the Eurovision Song Contest and ice skating, higher marks were given to competitors who performed last.

Interestingly neither the Primary Effect or the Recency Effect is always the more pronounced in adults. But what about children?

Emily Sumner et al (2019) found that children show a different type of response bias than adults, recency instead of primacy. In one experiment twenty-four toddlers were asked a series of questions with two options for them to consider (i.e. “Should Rori bring a lunchbox or backpack to school?”). Then the order of these options were flipped (i.e. “Should Quinn bring a backpack or a lunchbox to school?”). When answering verbally, the toddlers chose the second option 85.2 per cent of the time. 

We have found that young children demonstrate a robust recency bias when answering two-alternative forced-choice questions verbally. This recency bias can be seen both in the laboratory and within naturalistic contexts.

Crafty parents could exploit the Recency Effect to get their child to express an apparent preference for a healthier option over the other: sweets or sprouts?

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