The Primacy Effect: Characteristics, Examples and How It Influences You

Do you have the feeling that you remember things better that you're told first? This is what we know as the primacy effect. Find out more about this phenomenon here.
The Primacy Effect: Characteristics, Examples and How It Influences You

Last update: 28 July, 2022

Does the concept of the primacy effect sound familiar to you? It’s a phenomenon that’s connected with perception, memory, and attention. Through perception, your brain receives and processes information from the environment via your senses and forms a certain impression. Attention allows you to attend to these stimuli and you store them in your memory. The primacy effect combines these two capacities. It claims that you better remember the information you initially perceive. For example, the first item on a list.

In this article, we’ll explain the phenomenon of the primacy effect and why it occurs, Furthermore, we’ll give you some examples so you can better understand the concept. Finally, we talk about what impact it can have on you, as well as its influence in the field of advertising and marketing.

The primacy effect

The primacy effect is a phenomenon typical of basic and cognitive psychology. It’s a cognitive bias that implies you tend to remember more of the information presented to you initially. On the other hand, you have a tendency to forget the information presented and perceived later.

Here’s an example of the primacy effect. Imagine that you had to listen to a long list of words, and were then asked which ones you remember. Thanks to the primacy effect, it’s likely that you’ll remember the first words on the list much better. As a matter of fact, you’ll also tend to remember the last ones as well, but this refers to another phenomenon. This is known as the recency effect or bias.

Mind with mechanisms

Why does the primacy effect occur?

The primacy effect is believed to occur because initial items or information are better stored in your long-term memory (LTM) than those that follow. However, this phenomenon is weakened in long lists of words or items or information that’s presented quickly. That’s because you have less time to store it in your LTM.

In addition, items at the beginning are more like to be repeated. This makes the ‘transfer’ of information from short-term memory (STM) to LTM more likely.

Interestingly, researchers believe that the primacy effect also appears when you learn based on your past experiences. Therefore, the first thing you learned (and the first rewards you received), condition your future decisions to a greater extent than subsequent learning.

In this case, we’re talking about a more specific phenomenon: outcome primacy. In other words, the first results you obtain in certain tasks, or when carrying out certain actions, determine, to a certain extent, your future behavior when it comes to performing the same acts again in the future.

Example of the primacy effect

In 1946, Solomon Asch, an American psychologist recognized for his contributions to social psychology, conducted an experiment in which he verified the primacy effect. Participants were split into two groups. One group heard an individual described as intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious. The other group heard the individual described as envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, and intelligent. The participants who heard the first list developed a far more favorable impression of the individual than those who heard the second list. This demonstrates the fact that we’re more likely to remember the initial information we’re given.

How it influences you

How does the primacy effect influence you? Well, you’ve seen, through Asch’s experiment, that this phenomenon can have an effect on your judgment of others. This can also be linked to first impressions, which have an impact on the image you form of others.

Two friends talking about the primacy effect

Marketing and publicity

The primacy effect also has an important influence in the field of marketing and advertising. Indeed, advertisers are fully aware of the phenomenon and try to put the most relevant messages at the beginning of their advertisements. They know that the most important places in an advertisement are at the beginning and the end.

For example, commercials that start just when a high-profile show is ends are better served than those placed in the middle or later.

“The product is the same, the difference lies in the communication.”

-Oliviero Toscani-

The primacy effect is connected with basic cognitive processes, such as perception, and cognitive abilities like attention and human memory. Now that you know about this effect, which occurs in most people, you’ll know how to compose messages where the most important thing you want to say is sure to be remembered by the recipient.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Anderson, N. H. (1965). Primacy effects in personality impression formation using a generalized order effect paradigm. Journal of personality and social psychology, 2(1): 1.
  • Arias, M.F. et al. (2000). Psicología básica, psicología aplicada y metodología de investigación: El caso paradigmático del análisis experimental y aplicado del comportamiento. Revista Latinoamericana de Psicología, 32(2): 277-300.
  • De Vega, M. (1990). Introducción a la Psicología Cognitiva. Alianza Psicología. Madrid.
  • Garzon, A. y Seoane J. (1982). La memoria desde el procesamiento de información.
  • Gigerenzer, G. (2018). Decisiones instintivas. La inteligencia del inconsciente. Ariel.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.