The Recency Effect - Why Do I Remember Last Things First?

Updated on 27th November, 2022

The Recency Effect Definition

As its name suggests, the Recency Effect is a psychological phenomenon in which people tend to remember the most recently presented information best. It goes without saying, right? Imagine you have just been given a long list of names or grocery items to buy. When asked to remember this list, you will probably remember the more recent items on the list as opposed to the ones listed in the middle.

Funnily enough, research also shows that there is an equal but opposing effect, called the primacy effect, where people also tend to remember things that were presented at the beginning of the list.

The last item on the list matters more
The last item on the list matters more

When we take both of these effects together (i.e., the Recency and Primacy Effect), they create the Serial Position Effect, which is the phenomenon where the position of items in a presented list influences how well they will be remembered.

Effectively, when we consider the Recency Effect, we begin to see how our memory possesses a strong bias toward things that have just happened as opposed to other things that had time to linger around. It shows that we are highly interested in the last piece of information that our mind has perceived.

What is the Recency Effect?

Taking this into account, we now ask ourselves: Why do we tend to remember the last things we have heard but forget what came before? Although the concept seems rather evident because “Obviously, the more time I wait, the less I will remember,” there is actually an interesting cognitive explanation for this. The Recency Effect can be understood by a component of our memory processing called short-term memory.

Also referred to as primary or active memory, short-term memory is like a bank vault of information that can only store memories for a short amount of time before it passes on to other memory stores, such as our long-term memory. It exists to keep recently learned information active in case we want to bring it up quickly for use and application.

The role of short term memory
The role of short term memory

Did you know? – If not rehearsed or actively maintained, information stored within our short-term memory will only last between 15 to 30 seconds.

Because of the brief duration of information stored in our short-term memory, only a few pieces of newly learned data will remain active and ready for recall until it gets passed on somewhere else to be forgotten or stored. Simply put, the Recency Effect arises only because the last pieces of information you hear on a list are active and ready to be recalled from your short-term memory vault.

At the same time, the rest of the information has faded and long been forgotten. The most obvious display of the Recency Effect arises during times of appraisal or evaluation. For example, managers or teachers tend to fall victim to the Recency Effect when they are required to assess an employee or student’s performance over the year.

Short term memory lasts 15 to 30 seconds
Short term memory lasts 15 to 30 seconds

Even if both individuals had a productive year, they may be evaluated more harshly if they displayed negative performance towards the latter period of the year. Conversely, the opposite is also true where they could be evaluated in a more positive light if they performed positively towards the end of their evaluation period compared to the beginning.

Did you know? – The Recency Effect may have played a role in the 2008 market crash? Research shows that investors are heavily influenced by the most recent performance of a given stock or future while neglecting crucial past performances. This is why there is such a large herd mentality in the market where people consistently buy during a rising market and sell during a falling one.

History of the Recency Effect

The Recency Effect was discovered by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), who was known for undertaking the first pioneering experiments in human memory research. He was most known for discovering the interesting ways our memory functions, such as how we forget or remember important information. The Recency Effect was discovered during experiments that Ebbinghaus conducted on himself to investigate how the recall of an item is influenced by its position in a stated list. Basically, Ebbinghaus forced himself to remember hundreds of lists with items placed randomly to see which ones he would remember best. Through this experiment, Ebbinghaus realized that he tended to remember items at the beginning (i.e., the Primacy Effect) and the end of the list (i.e., the Recency Effect) but not in the middle. He termed this dual effect the Serial Position Effect, which included the Recency Effect as the main component.

After its discovery, the Recency Effect became the center of attention for many researchers because it gave clues to how human cognition actually functions. Previously, many people believed that memory was only a single function that would undertake many different tasks. However, from this discovery, Ebbinghaus further confirmed that memory was, in fact, made up of various different processes, such as short-term memory, long-term memory, episodic memory, and many others.

Did you know? – There are actually several types of memory? On the surface, we have three main types: long-term memory, short-term memory, and sensory memory. However, we can break these memories down even further, which is where things get confusing. For example, in our sensory memory, we have haptic (i.e., touch) and echoic (i.e., sound) memories. In our long-term memory, we have episodic memory and semantic memory. Simply put, memory can be divided into several different types - it is not one singular process!

Memory comes in various forms
Memory comes in various forms

Case Examples of the Recency Effect

Case 1: To confirm the Recency Effect, psychologist Bennet Murdock conducted a large study where participants had a list of around 40 words read out loud to them and were given a minute and a half to write down as many words as they could remember. Like what Ebbinghaus found during his self-administered experiments, Murdock found that the main deciding factor for the remembered words was their position on the list. In this experiment, he found that the words from the beginning of the list were more frequently remembered but after that, the probability of remembering dropped drastically.

However, after a while, the probability of remembering slowly increased when participants approached the last eight items on the list, expressing a strong Recency Effect. Because of its surprising consistency and replicability, Murdock’s experiment is conducted throughout every psychology course in universities to introduce the concept of cognition and memory to students who are beginning their studies. To replicate the results for yourself, there are multiple online resources that can be used which read out a list of different items ranging from numbers, colors, or countries for you to remember after a specific time interval. Additionally, you can also find versions of Recency Effect tests that add distractors between the time intervals. These distractors serve to disrupt your memory processing. The question is, will you fall victim to the recency effect?

Recency Effect - Remembering items from a list
Recency Effect - Remembering items from a list

Case 2: You may be surprised to hear that the Recency Effect also occurs in social environments and has the ability to strongly influence how we think and feel about others. Because the Recency Effect makes us remember recent information better, when we hear descriptions of another person, studies have shown that we tend to attribute more focus to the information presented later and not earlier. Why is this a problem, you may ask? Because if someone is described first using positive traits but later with a few negative traits, the Recency Effect will cause the listener to focus more on the negative traits that were given later than the positive traits that were given initially.

To research this, psychologists Kristi Costabile and Stanley Klein tried to see whether this would apply in a judicial context where the Recency Effect could be used to influence the opinions of jury members. To do this, they created a mock court case and found that jury members were more likely to give a guilty verdict to an offender if incriminating evidence was presented later in the trial rather than in the beginning. When we think about this, the Recency Effect may have significant implications regarding how court cases can be manipulated if people are smart enough to use it.

Recency Effect in the judicial context
Recency Effect in the judicial context

Case 3: Still not convinced that the Recency Effect is important? Well, a study conducted by psychologists Francesca Chiesa and Caterina Primi discovered that the Recency Effect strongly influenced how students remember the information they learn in school. Because students learn essential information all year round, the Recency Effect shows that only the information taught at the end of the year will be remembered best. This is a bit troubling when the information that is taught all year round needs to be remembered. Multiple counter techniques have been proposed to help students remember the mid-year lessons that are most likely to be neglected and forgotten.

Researchers found that since the weight of newly learned information takes over the memory trace of previously learned information, older memories will slowly fall behind and be forgotten. However, suppose this memory becomes rehearsed after it is learned. In that case, it becomes renewed with a higher probability of being stored permanently in the brain. To do this, multiple schools have proposed a journaling system for students to rehearse and remember information correctly. The trick is to act on the information once it has been learned so that it can leave a powerful memory trace within the brain. Hence, in order to counter the forgetfulness that results from the Recency Effect, simply undertake consistent rehearsals of learned information so that you can remember it on a long-term basis.

A Beautiful Quote

“The true art of memory is the art of attention”

- Samuel Johnson

Questions and Answers

What is the difference between the Primacy Effect and the Recency Effect?

The Primacy Effect refers to the ability to remember details from the beginning of a list of items shown to an individual. The Recency effect refers to better remembering the items from the end of the list. The items in the middle are not recalled as well as the first or last items.

How can the Primacy Effect and Recency Effect make a difference in customer relations?

Due to the Primacy Effect, customers are more likely to remember the first impression that you make on them. Similarly, due to the Recency Effect, they are also expected to remember your latest actions or communications with them.

How can you use the Primacy Effect to tilt customer opinion?

If you want a customer to choose the first item in a list of options, place it as the first item. Also, talk about your positives before you talk about negatives and other things, as they are more likely to remember them.

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