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Recency Effect in Psychology: Definition & Example

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  • 0:01 Receny Effect Defined
  • 0:57 Serial Position Curve
  • 2:23 Example
  • 3:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

The human brain is weird, and unless you have an eidetic memory, you probably don't remember everything you read. You tend to remember the first part, some random stuff in the middle, and the end. What is that all about?

Recency Effect Defined

Why is there a summary at the beginning and end of a chapter or lesson? If your shopping list is in alphabetical order, why do you remember apples, bananas, mushrooms, xylophone wax, yogurt, and zebra steaks?

The recency effect can be described as you remembering best the items that come at the end of the list. So in the example above, you remember a few things from the beginning (apples and bananas), some stuff in the middle (mushrooms), and a lot of stuff at the end (xylophone wax, yogurt, and zebra steaks).

This is related to the primacy effect, which states you remember some things at the beginning of a list because it occurred first. Memorizing a list of words is like running a marathon. There is the beginning, a very long middle that blurs together, and now it is the end. The primacy effect is the beginning; you remember it because that is where you started. The recency effect is the finish; you remember the end the best.

Serial Position Curve

A psychologist named Herbert Ebbinghaus noticed this and began to study the phenomenon of how crummy human memory is. His research had him trying to memorize nonsense syllables called consonant-vowel-consonants (CVCs). They are exactly what they say they are: a consonant, vowel, consonant, such as CUW, WUG, CAH, and so on. His research looked like this:

  • Have a list created by a coworker of CVCs
  • Have another coworker check the list; only nonsense syllables should be on it (real words like RUG and CUT are easier to remember)
  • Provide Ebbinghaus the list of syllables
  • Memorize
  • Remove list of words
  • Attempt to re-create the list from memory

Ebbinghaus would then compare the words remembered to the words on the list. He found he remembered several words from the beginning, a few in the middle, and more at the end. It looked like this:

This funny U-shaped curve was named the serial position curve. It is called this because the serial position of the word on the list influences if it will be remembered.

Studies show that the serial position curve works over several periods of time. While Ebbinghaus and other psychologists were looking at word lists memorized and rewritten in a day, the recency effect has also been studied over several days and even over weeks.

Example

Student A and Student B have the same classes: biology, organic chemistry, political science, PE, and psychology. Both students have difficulty with biology and organic chemistry.

Student A studies every night, but in a haphazard style. Some nights, Student A studies organic chemistry and biology and becomes confused; other nights, she studies all five and burns her brain out.

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