Primacy Effect in Psychology: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:03 Recall and Long-Term Memory
  • 0:32 The Serial Position Effect
  • 0:56 The Primacy Effect
  • 2:21 Everyday Applications
  • 3:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Chris Clause
Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

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. 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.

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Additional Activities

Primacy Effect Activities

Activity 1:

For this activity, you are going to do an experiment with your friends and family to see the primacy effect in action. First, you need to write a list of 12 words. These words should be common nouns, with nothing peculiar or unique about any of them (e.g., bed, rock, car, etc.) and should be in no particular order. Try not to make the items related (e.g., pillow, bed, comforter, blanket, etc.). When you have the list in hand, ask family members or friends to volunteer for your experiment. Ask them to listen to you read the list (about one word per second), and after you have finished reading, to write down the words that they remember. You should observe that the primacy effect occurred, with your subjects recalling more items at the beginning of the list than in the middle.

Activity 2:

You learned from the lesson that the primacy and recency effects are a phenomenon wherein the beginning of a list and end of a list tend to be remembered better than the middle. This is a way to overcome this bias, however, using distinctiveness. For example, please read the following list: banana, orange, blueberry, rhinoceros, blackberry, peach, apple. Did you only remember the beginning and end, or did you remember the middle word as well? If you remembered rhinoceros (which I expect you did), it is due to the distinctiveness effect. For this activity, create a list of 12 words and try to make a word in the middle distinctive. Read your list to family and friends and have them write down what they remember. Did they remember your distinctive word?

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