What Is Primacy Bias? | Definition & Example

Primacy bias is the tendency to more easily recall information that we encounter first. In other words, if we read a long list of items, we are more likely to remember the first few items than the items in the middle.

Example: Primacy bias
You are attending a lecture at school. At the beginning, you feel like you can absorb all the information and follow the topic. After a while, your mind starts to wander and only when the lecture is drawing to an end do you tune in again. Later that day, as you try to explain to a friend what the lecture was about, you realize that you can vividly recall the first part of the lecture but not the middle.

We also tend to assume that what is at the beginning of a list is of greater importance or significance. Due to this, primacy bias (or primacy effect) has far-reaching consequences in different contexts, such as job interviews, education, and advertising.

What is primacy bias?

Primacy bias is a type of cognitive bias or mental shortcut that helps us process information quickly but not always correctly. As a result, we can better recall the earliest information we encounter.

This is why being first at a job interview is advantageous: you are more memorable than candidates interviewed in the middle. Similarly, it’s easier to recall the beginning of a lecture or the first speaker at a conference.

Because of primacy bias, what comes first in a sequence of things or events is most noteworthy. This explains why first impressions carry more weight in our judgment when meeting a new person. If the first time we are introduced they happen to be rude or unpleasant, we form a negative impression of them. This impression is likely to stay even if there is evidence to the contrary later on.

Tip
Keep in mind that primacy effect and priming effect (or priming) refer to two different concepts. Primacy effect refers to our ability to better recall the first piece of information we receive, while the priming effect refers to using a stimulus, such as a word, image, or action, to change or guide someone’s behavior without the person being aware this is happening.

What causes primacy bias?

There are several interrelated reasons that can help explain why primacy bias affects our ability to recall information, such as:

  • Repetition. Items at the beginning of a list are encountered first, so we have more time to rehearse those items and memorize them. The more we rehearse information, the more likely it is to be eventually stored in our long-term memory, becoming easier to recall.
  • Attention. Because our attention span is limited, we are more focused when we start reading something or at the beginning of a presentation. As we continue, our minds drift to what we previously heard or read or to something entirely different.
  • Memory. Our capacity to remember things is also limited. To save energy and effort, our brains choose what to keep and what to forget. In general, it takes less effort to rehearse and recall a single item (the first item on the list) than several items (the items later in the list, in addition to the initial ones). Because of this, top-of-the-list items are more likely to pass our selection process and end up in our long-term memory than middle-list items.

What is the difference between primacy bias and recency bias?

Primacy bias and recency bias are both parts of what is called the serial position effect. According to this phenomenon, our ability to recall different items on a list or series depends on their position.

The difference is that primacy bias causes us to remember the first items in a series better than the ones that follow, while recency bias causes us to remember the last (or most recent) items better than preceding items.

Combining the primacy and recency bias, we can conclude that people tend to forget information from the middle of a list or series. In other words, when we have an important message to convey, it’s best to place it at either the beginning or the end.

Primacy bias example

Primacy bias has implications for elections because the top spot on the ballot provides an advantage to the candidate whose name occupies it.

Example: Primacy bias and elections
Several studies have shown that the order in which candidates’ names are listed causes primacy bias and can affect the outcome of elections.

One study experimented with varying the order in which candidates’ names appeared on ballots. In 71 out of 79 districts, candidates received a greater proportion of votes when listed first than when listed in any other position during primary elections. In 7 out of those 71 cases, the advantage of being listed first exceeded the winner’s victory margin.

This suggests that if the same candidate were listed at the top in all election districts, they probably would have won the election. In other words, ballot position would have determined the election outcome.

Because job interviews are mostly conducted under time pressure, they are fertile ground for different types of bias, including primacy bias.

Example: Primacy bias and job interviews
A hiring manager is interviewing several candidates for a customer-facing role. One of the candidates arrives 15 minutes late, panting, wearing jeans and a wrinkled t-shirt. The candidate tries to mutter an apology and hands over their resume. The hiring manager has already formed a negative first impression, and spends the rest of the interview paying little attention to the candidate’s positive qualities. When the hiring manager reviews all the applications, what they are most likely to remember from that specific candidate is that they came late and were dressed too casually.

In a situation such as a job interview, first impressions can have a disproportionate impact.

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions

Why does primacy bias matter?

Primacy bias matters because it is an indication that our brains are disproportionately influenced by first impressions when processing information. Knowing this, we can use the primacy bias to our advantage.

For example, when studying, we can start our session with the most difficult topic. We can also revisit any topics or concepts we found hard at the end of our session. In this way, we can take advantage of recency bias as well.

What causes the primacy effect?

The primacy effect occurs due to several causes, such as:

  • Our limited capacity to memorize things
  • Our limited attention
  • The effect of repetition on the ability to memorize something
What is the opposite of the primacy effect?

The recency effect is the opposite of the primacy effect. It is the tendency to remember items at the end of a sequence or series. For example, we are more likely to remember the last person who presents at a conference rather than anyone who presents in the middle. This happens because more recent items, events, or faces we come across are being stored in our short-term memory and are easier to recall.

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, February 03). What Is Primacy Bias? | Definition & Example. Scribbr. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://www.scribbr.com/research-bias/primacy-bias/

Sources

Koppell, J. G., & Steen, J. A. (2004). The Effects of Ballot Position on Election Outcomes. The Journal of Politics, 66(1), 267–281. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1468-2508.2004.00151.x

Is this article helpful?
Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specializes in writing about research methods and research bias.