What Is the Recency Effect in Psychology?

Why It’s Easier to Remember the Last Thing You Heard

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The recency effect refers to the finding that people tend to have a better memory for information they were told more recently. Below, we’ll review how researchers study the recency effect, the conditions under which it occurs, and how it can impact the judgments we make.

Key Takeaways: Recency Effect

  • The recency effect refers to the fact that we are more likely to remember information that has been given to us more recently.
  • Psychologists have found evidence both for a recency effect and a primacy effect (better memory for information presented earlier).
  • In addition to being studied by memory researchers, social psychologists have investigated how the recency effect can impact our evaluations of others.

Recency Effect Definition

One demonstration of the recency effect can be found in a 1962 paper by psychologist Bennet Murdock. Murdock investigated how the ordering of words in a list affects our ability to remember them (what is known as the serial position effect). In the study, participants had lists of words read out loud to them (depending on the version of the study, participants heard as few as 10 words or as many as 40). After hearing the words, participants were given a minute and a half to write down as many words as they could remember from the list.

Murdock found that the likelihood of a word being remembered depended on where in the list it had appeared. He found that the first few words in the list were remembered fairly well, which is known as the primacy effect. After this, the likelihood of remembering a word dropped significantly, but it began to increase again for the last eight items on the list—and the likelihood of remembering a word was highest for the last few items on the list (i.e. the recency effect).

Graph demonstrating the serial position effect
Graph demonstrating the serial position effect. Obli / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Murdock charted out these results in a graph. On the x axis, he put the word’s order in the list (e.g. whether it was presented first, second, and so on). On the y axis, he put the chance that a participant was able to remember the word. The resulting data showed what is called the serial position curve: memory for a word starts out moderate to high at the beginning of the list, quickly drops (and, if the list is longer, stays low for a while), and then increases for words at the end of the list.

When Does the Recency Effect Occur?

Psychologists have found that the recency effect occurs when participants complete the memory test immediately after being presented with a list of items. However, in other research studies, psychologists have presented participants with items to remember, given participants a brief distraction (such as asking them to count backwards by threes), and then asked them to try to remember the words from the list. The results of these studies show that, when people are briefly distracted before completing the memory test, the recency effect is not found. Interestingly, in studies such as this one, the primacy effect (having a better memory for earlier items in a list) still occurs.

This finding caused some psychologists to suggest that the primacy effect and recency effect could be due to different processes, and that the recency effect might involve short-term memory. However, other research has suggested that the recency effect may be more complicated than this, and that it may be due to more than just short-term memory processes.

The Recency Effect in Social Psychology

While the recency effect has long been studied by psychologists who study memory, social psychologists have also explored whether it can affect how we perceive others. As an example, imagine that your friend is describing someone they want to introduce you to, and they describe this person as kind, smart, generous, and boring. Because of the recency effect, the last item on the list—boring—might have a disproportionate effect on your judgment of the person, and you might have a less positive impression of them (compared to if boring had been in the middle of the list of words).

As Simon Laham and Joseph Forgas explain, we can experience a recency effect or a primacy effect (where the adjectives presented first have a stronger impact), depending on the circumstances. For example, we’re more likely to experience a recency effect if we’re given a long list of information about the person, or if we’re asked to form an impression of the person right after we’re given information about them. On the other hand, we’d be more strongly impacted by the first items in a list if we know in advance that we’re going to be asked to form an impression of the person.

Conclusion

The recency effect, a finding from researchers studying the psychology of recall, suggests that we tend to remember more recent things better. The primacy effect suggests that we also tend to have better memory for things that came first—in other words, the items in the middle are the ones that we’re most likely to forget. Research shows that things tend to be most memorable if they occur at the beginning or end of something.

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