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R for the Recency Effect

By Malika Noor Mehta

Artwork by Madiha Syed


Imagine you’re in middle school. Your English teacher has just taught you the meanings and spellings of twenty complicated, 10-letter words. You have been diligently writing them down in a list, trying hard to understand and remember each word. Then, much to your dismay, your teacher announces, “Pop quiz! List all the words from memory!”


Among the twenty words you just learned, you realize that you can clearly remember the last 6 and the first 3, but the ones in the middle are frustratingly fuzzy. In the end, you manage about 12 words and go home rather morose.


Well, don’t be too hard on your middle-school self! There is a reason why you were able to recall the words you learned most recently. It’s called the Recency Effect!


What is the Recency Effect?


The Recency Effect refers to the discovery that human beings remember information that is presented or explained to them most recently. For instance, in the example above, when trying to recall the list of words, you were most easily able to remember the last 6. The Recency Effect is one of the key components of what is called the Serial Position Effect – a phenomenon that posits that the position or placement of items on a list impacts how accurately they are remembered. German Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the Serial Position Effect while performing memory experiments on himself in 1964. As a part of this phenomenon, the Recency Effect provides great insight into how memory functions, as well as ways in which to maximize recall.


How does the Recency Effect work?


The Recency Effect is intricately linked to our short-term memory. Short-term memory, or active/primary memory, refers to our ability to retain a relatively small amount of information for a brief duration of time. This information remains in the memory for active or immediate usage (think: the quick memorization of a phone number that needs to be dialled right away).


Short-term memory does not last beyond 15-30 seconds without active rehearsal. In this way, our short-term memory capacity is rather limited and requires effort to convert the information stored into long-term memory. Only four distinct pieces of information can be retained in our short-term memory bank. Therefore, if your middle-school teacher had tested your memory of the twenty words (without allowing any studying) several hours after teaching the words, you might have remembered even fewer than 12. Delaying recall after the presentation of the information has an immense impact on the Recency Effect and might erase the memory entirely.



Influencing Factors

There are several factors that influence the possibility of the Recency Effect occurring and the accuracy of the recall. Here are some of those factors:


Interferences: When something or someone interrupts the presentation of a task or intervenes with another task or information, it is considered as an interference. If this interference takes place for more than 15 to 30 seconds, it disrupts our short-term memory and might prevent the Recency Effect from helping us recall the original information presented.


Tasks Factors: The task itself and the manner in which it is presented impact the Recency Effect. For instance, if you are given a very short list of groceries (eggs, milk and cookies), you might recall all the items, essentially removing the Recency Effect. If the list is very long and is presented in one go (i.e. without breaking it up into sections), your memory is more likely to implement the Recency Effect.


Duration or Time lapsed: If a lot of time passes between the initial presentation of information, the recall might diminish in accuracy because the Recency Effect is significantly reduced.


The Primacy Effect

The opposite of the Recency Effect is the Primacy Effect, which refers to our ability to recall the first few items on a list quite accurately. Like its counterpart, the Primacy Effect also has a significant impact on the choices we make on a daily basis.


For instance, we often make critical decisions based on the information we hear first and recall most easily. An individual’s opinion can be manipulated because of this cognitive bias.

Companies use the Primacy (and Recency) Effect to enhance marketing and sales, using the first impression bias to their advantage by presenting the most positive information first (and last) and filling the middle of the pitch with the more complex and less favourable details.

The Primacy Effect further influences our daily choices and decisions because of its impact on what is called the anchoring bias. This refers to our tendency to rely upon the first bit of information we receive to formulate and anchor any subsequent decisions, interpretations or judgments. Once anchored, we are unlikely to drastically alter our thought process unless we put in concerted and purposeful effort.


Unlike the Recency Effect, which employs our short-term memory, we store information that we hear first in our long-term memory. One of the reasons information heard first is remembered most accurately and converted to long-term memory is because people tend to rehearse the information the most. We naturally begin memorizing a list from start to finish, therefore reciting the first few items the most often. Furthermore, our attention spans are also a factor in how well we remember information. While we are paying great attention to a presentation's beginning and end, we are usually a little less attentive in the middle. These factors impact both the Primacy and Recency Effects.


The Recency Effect’s Impact on Learning

Evidently, the Recency Effect alters the process of learning. You are more likely to recall what you learned last, and less likely to recall what you studied in the middle of a class or study session. There are, however, ways of adapting and changing to use short-term memory to your advantage.


Structuring study time is critical. Recognizing that the beginning and end of the session are your prime periods of learning will alter the material you decide to study first and last.


For instance, take advantage of the Primacy and Recency Effects by studying the most important material first and last. You might decide to also learn new material during those times, and use the middle part of the study session to review older information. Furthermore, you could spend the end of the session re-reviewing material to cement the information in your mind and convert it to long-term memory


The Recency Effect’s Impact of Social Interactions


Social psychologists who study memory’s impact on social interactions have been particularly curious about both, the Primacy and Recency Effect. They have examined whether the order of information gleaned about a person impacts the way in which we ultimately judge and perceive this individual. For instance, if you start describing the positive aspects about a person, then explain some of their areas of development, and finally end your description with more positive caveats, the person listening will likely recall the positive aspects more accurately.


Further research found that circumstances play a significant role in which memory system is employed better (short term or long term). If we are asked to form an opinion about a person right after being given descriptive characteristics about them, the Recency Effect is employed. If, however, we know in advance that we will be questioned about our opinions about this person after listening to a description about them, the Primacy Effect comes into play.


In Conclusion…


The Recency Effect refers to our ability to recall recent information better. The Primacy Effect explains how we have a better memory for items that were presented first. Ultimately, what these cognitive biases tell us is that it is the information in the middle that truly suffers. If we employ this research in our daily lives, professional meetings and presentations, educational classes and study groups, and family discussions should all be kept as short as possible, with the information presented in small doses, with time for rehearsal and digestion.

About the author

Malika Noor Mehta is a mental health entrepreneur. Before the pandemic, she was engaged in creating a fellowship program that placed mental health counsellors in low-cost schools in Mumbai. Her interest in mental health stems from her teaching experience at Teach for India and her time in Jordan and Greece, creating trauma-sensitive education programs for Syrian refugees. She holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In her free time, she loves to write and take photographs.

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