Is there an advantage to being the first or last person when giving a presentation, interviewing for a job or making a sales call? You might think that it wouldn’t make much difference, but it turns out that it does. Researchers call it the primacy and recency effect. We are more likely to recall the first or last things we hear, while the items in the middle are the least likely to be remembered.
I recently experienced this firsthand. I got estimates from four HVAC contractors to put a new heating and air-conditioning system in my house. The first contractor I spoke to was the one who got my business. The last contractor to give me an estimate came in second. The other two, the ones in the middle, fell off my radar screen.
To be fair, the first contractor’s price was the most competitive, and I liked the system he recommended best. He also was the most persistent in following up, so that made a difference, too. But the others were reputable companies, all were prompt in giving me estimates, and all had fairly similar recommendations.
It might be the primacy and recency effect plays a bigger role in our decision-making than we realize. Researchers at the Harvard and Wharton Business Schools found after analyzing 9,000 MBA interviews over 10 years that candidates interviewed earlier in the process received a more objective evaluation. Other career experts have said there is a recency bias because later candidates in the interview process are freshest in the minds of selection committees.
As early as the 1880s, a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus was doing memory research and discovered the serial position effect, which is the tendency to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items the worst. When asked to recall a list of items in any order, people tend to begin with the end of the list (the most recent items). Among earlier items, the first few are remembered more frequently than the middle items.
Incidentally, it was Ebbinghaus who first noted the “forgetting curve,” which describes the exponential loss of information we have learned. The sharpest decline occurs in the first 20 minutes, and the decline is significant through the first hour. The curve levels off after 24 hours. Perhaps this explains why I can never remember names or passwords!
Ebbinghaus was a fascinating man, and I can’t resist mentioning another of his discoveries called the Ebbinghaus illusion. It’s an optical illusion that alters our perception of size. In the best-known version (pictured here), two circles of identical size are placed near each other but are surrounded by different-sized circles. The circle surrounded by the small circles appears larger, but, of course, it is not.
The upshot of Ebbinghaus’ research and later studies is that we should be aware of memory limitations whenever we are competing for someone’s time or business. I have to give that first HVAC contractor a lot of credit for asking me where I was in my decision-making process. When I told him that he was the first one that I had talked to, he wanted to know if I would be talking to others and when I would be making my decision. He then made a point to follow up during the week, so I would continue to keep him top-of-mind.
You can do the same if you are competing for someone’s business or being considered for a job. Ask how long the process will take. What are the decision steps along the way? Then come up with reasons to reach out to your potential client or boss. The most obvious is a thank-you note after the interview or meeting. You can follow up a little later with additional thoughts or questions you might have about the project or job. I also forward to potential clients articles that I think they might be interested in or ideas I have for future projects.
The primacy and recency effect also is at play in meetings, as this YouTube video by business coach Paul Archer demonstrates. We tend to remember the first things said at meetings and the very end of meetings. To run an effective meeting, it’s important to keep meetings brief, have an agenda, get to key items upfront and wrap up your meeting with a good summary.
So take advantage of the primacy and recency effect, and make the most of your beginnings and endings!