Why primacy effect and the recency effect

Why do we remember some things better than others? In this lesson, you will learn about the primacy effect and explanations for why it occurs. Then you’ll be able to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Recall and Long-Term Memory

Recall is the term psychologists use to refer to the ability to accurately pull information out of long-term memory.

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We use recall multiple times throughout each day. So, why are we able to recall some things better than others? The quality and quantity of information that we are able to recall has a lot to do with how the information is encoded and processed after we are exposed to it. In this lesson, we will focus on one specific phenomenon associated with recall called the primacy effect.

The Serial Position Effect

The primacy effect and the recency effect are the two main components of a broader concept known as the serial position effect. The serial position effect says that when given a list of information and later asked to recall that information, the items at the beginning (primacy) and the items at the end (recency) are more likely to be recalled than the items in the middle.

The Primacy Effect

So, why are items at the beginning of a list easier to remember than items in the middle? In general, the explanation for how the primacy effect works has to do with two highly related aspects of memory encoding that allow items at the beginning of the list to be recalled with greater ease than items in the middle.The first reason is that since the items at the beginning of the list are typically read or heard first, there is more time for rehearsal.

In other words, you have more time to repeat those words over and over again in your head, keeping them in short-term memory longer, which will increase your chance of being able to transfer those pieces of information into long-term memory.The second reason has to do with how deep the information that we are trying to remember is processed. In addition to rehearsal, the depth of processing is directly related to the ability to transfer information into long-term memory. In general, processing depth refers to whether or not we assign meaning to pieces of information that we want to recall. So, as with rehearsal, we have more time available to relate the piece of information to something that is important to us, and, therefore, we are more likely to recall it later.To summarize, the primacy effect refers to the increased ability to recall the first items amongst a list of items, because theoretically we should have more time available to rehearse, which increases the opportunity to assign meaning.

Everyday Applications

Since you have a basic understanding of how the primacy effect works, why not use it toward your advantage? The next time you have a job interview and are offered a choice of interview times of either the first appointment or somewhere in the middle, which one should you choose? Of course, you still need to interview well, but according to the primacy effect, you will significantly increase your chances of being remembered in greater detail by the interviewer if you are first rather than if you were to interview somewhere in the middle of the pack.The same rules apply if you are preparing to give a speech for your public speaking class and really want to stand out in hopes of a good grade. Avoid the middle and try to be one of the first, if not the first person to speak. Assuming you are prepared and do well, you will greatly improve your odds of being remembered by your teacher.

Lesson Summary

The serial position effect is a psychological phenomenon associated with memory that says that items at the beginning (primacy) and items at the end (recency) of a list or string of information are more easily recalled than items in the middle. It is generally believed that the primacy effect occurs as a function of the availability of increased rehearsal time and increased opportunity for encoding information while in short-term memory, which ultimately makes the information more likely to be transferred to long-term memory. Information that ends up in long-term memory has a significantly higher chance of being recalled when it is needed.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this video, you should be able to:

  • Define recall as it’s used in psychology
  • Describe the serial position effect
  • Discuss the two main components of the serial position effect
  • Explain how to apply the primacy effect in everyday life
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