Serial position effect

Serial Position Effect-Definition and Examples

The serial position effect is a phenomenon in which people best remember the first and the last items on a list and remember the middle items worst. The first item on the list, or “primacy effect,” is more likely to be recalled than any other item; this may also apply for the last few items of the list, or “recency effects.”

This effect can happen when we study material such as words, numbers, or pictures one at a time. For example: if someone were to show you four drawings and then ask you what was drawn second and fourth from the left (without showing them again). You would most likely answer correctly with 2 and 4. You would probably remember those two because they were drawn first and last.

The Primacy Effect

A person experiencing this effect will remember the first few words or things that they learn the most. They will place those pieces of information well even if they don’t review them.

This bias is most applicable when the subject has learned the material before but forgets everything they have learned.

The Recency Effect

The recency effect is most applicable when the subject has not learned the material before.

This bias is when the person remembers the last few words or pieces of material most. It occurs because the brain will focus on what it has just learned instead of older information.

There are three models involved in the recency effect, namely single-store, dual-store, and ratio rule.

Single-store model

This model indicates that serial position effects are a result of a single mechanism. This model suggests that these effects are caused by the memory trace of the most recently presented list items (i.e., recency effect).

According to the single-store model, items that are recently presented to memory but not tested until after a retention interval of sufficient duration (e.g., over 24 hours) will be remembered accurately.

Dual-store model

This model suggests that different mechanisms cause both recency and primacy effects. The Dual-store model proposes that recency effects result from a single memory store while primacy effects result from a separate memory store.

According to the dual-store model, information is encoded into two separate stores. One store covers items near the beginning of a list, while the other deals with items near the end of the list. A buffer zone separates the two stores to prevent information from one store from affecting the other.

Ratio rule model

This model suggests that different mechanisms from the single-store model cause recency and primacy effects. However, this model proposes that recency effects result from a short-term memory system and primacy effects result from a long-term memory system.

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Why Does the Serial Position Effect Happen?

The following are reasons why the serial position effect occurs

  • The brain is focused on what it has just learned, not older information. Humans are very susceptible to recency effects. We tend to focus on the end of something and ignore the middle details.
  • The last few pieces of information that a person has just learned take priority in their brain when trying to remember something. The last few things that a person hears are remembered more than what was said before.
  • We tend to remember better words or things at the beginning and the end of an experience. The primacy effect happens because of the way that the brain pays attention. The recency effect occurs because it’s easier to learn new things than to review older items. We blame it on the human short-term memory.
  • The first few words or pieces of information are easy to remember because they leave a unique mark in our brains. We tend to pay maximum attention to the beginning of something because our concentration is at its peak. This is the effect of human long-term memory.

How to Avoid the Serial Position Effect

It is possible to remember every item or word despite its position. Below are various ways to avoid the serial position effect:

  • Remain aware of these biases to overcome them
  • Review the information a few times.
  • Don’t focus on only the beginning of a list of the most recent items. Remember the most important information can also be in the middle
  • Don’t be afraid to go back and review older information.
  • Make a brief pause. Take a moment to summarize what you have learned before moving on to the next thing.
  • Write it down. Sometimes writing down information helps us solidify it in our minds better than simply reading it or hearing it spoken aloud.
  • Practice makes perfect! Practicing the same thing repeatedly increases the likelihood of remembering.
  • External and internal distractions interfere with the learning process. Try to find a quiet place to study, ideally without any noise or interruptions from other people. If you’re studying, focus on what you are reading at that moment. When you lose focus, you reduce your memory capacity.
  • Bad sleep habits interfere with our ability to concentrate. Try to get at least eight hours of sleep or more if your body permits.
  • Don’t try to cram all of your studying into one night. Break up the material into chunks and learn them over a few days or weeks.

The Serial Position Curve

The serial position curve is the pattern that shows how people tend to recall items depending on when information is presented. The graph will usually look like a bell curve or inverted cone.

The graph starts high as the person remembers the first things best, then there’s a decrease in memory towards the middle items. The curve starts to go up again towards the end as the person remembers the last items better than the middle.

This happens because we tend to learn and remember things better when we see them at the beginning or end of a sequence.

Examples of Serial Position Effects in Daily Life


  • Quizzes and tests often look like a serial position effect curve because we remember best the things we learned last.
  • A teacher or professor can take advantage of this by planning the most challenging questions at the beginning and easier ones towards the end. This is to help the students with the most concentration and maximum learning in class.
  • When revising for tests, students tend to focus more on what they learned in the middle of the term. This is because they understood the initial topics better since they were energetic and attentive. Also, the recent topics are still fresh in their minds, so they spend less time revising those.
  • The first question on a test is the most important because it forms the basis for all others, especially if there is a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ boundary. If a student gets this question wrong, they have no chance to pass the test since all other questions rely on the results of this first question.

Test makers take advantage of this and place the most crucial question at the beginning, so there is no room for error.

  • The first question of a multiple-choice test has the highest chance of being answered correctly. This is because it is the only one that can be answered without any prior knowledge. The later questions are less likely to be answered correctly because they require information that has already been processed or remembered from previous questions.

Web design

  • User interfaces are designed based on the position effect. Designers should avoid information overload for users to recall the majority of information. Task-oriented user interface design helps users to understand how to navigate the page without getting distracted.
  • Web designers should remember that users will not always read their webpage from the beginning to the end. The designer should organize content in this way, focusing mainly on high-level headings and links towards the top of a webpage.
  • Landing pages are another example of the serial position effect. When designing a landing page, users are trying to accomplish one specific task. A call-to-action towards the beginning will help users to focus their attention.


  • In a sales pitch, the call-to-action is placed at the end of the pitch to take advantage of the recency effect.
  • Salespeople follow up with customers by email and phone. The main point should be placed at the beginning or middle of an email or voicemail to help the customers remember it.
  • Product primacy: This is where the product is positioned such that the customer sees it first, then the price. Product primacy helps to assure that the customer buys the product because it is perceived to be of higher quality. For example, a mobile phone store may have a product primacy strategy, with its iPhone being the first thing you see when entering the store.
  • Price primacy: In this case, the customer will see the price before the product. This is effective when the product’s price is high and makes customers believe they are getting a ‘good deal’ on the product.

Remembering people’s names and information

  • When you meet someone for the first time, it is common to remember their face better than their name. This is because we remember pictures better than words. Also, you encounter their face before you hear a word from them, so the face sticks better.

 You should make an effort to recall the person’s name throughout your conversation and, at the end to take advantage of the serial position effect.

  • If two groups of people are told the same information, the group that hears it at the beginning of a conversation will be more likely to remember it better.


  • Song titles and lyrics are designed to have a serial position effect. There is a higher chance of success if the title or chorus is at the beginning or end of a song.
  • In a music concert, the best performances are scheduled at the beginning and end of the show. The organizers take advantage of the primacy and recency effects. The audience will remember better those who performed first and last as opposed to the middle acts.
  • The serial position effect can be seen in musical pieces as well. Classical music tends to start with slow melodic elements, sometimes even a symphonic poem or overture. The middle of the musical compositions tends to be more fast-paced and dramatic. The endings contain a return to the musical beginning pieces.
  • People tend to recall the first and last parts of a song better than the middle. This is because it’s common for songs to fade out at their endings, eliminating the last bit of information. Also, it is common for songs to begin with a drumbeat or another strong, attention-grabbing part.

Daily errands

  • The most important items are better written at the beginning, while the least important things are written the middle or end of a to-do list for better recall.
  • When writing a grocery list, the items bought most often should be at the beginning and end of the list. This way, we will remember the first and last items better since they are used more often.
  • People tend to remember the middle of their day better than the start or end because it is when they are most familiar with what they are doing.

Memorizing things

  • The information at the beginning and end of a list or phrase is remembered better than that in the middle. This is where techniques such as chunking come from.
  • People tend to remember information better when it is presented in lists. This saves time and ensures that the information sticks better since you are processing it in smaller amounts.
  • Long lists of information should be divided into sub-groups to increase recall for all groups. For example, suppose you are giving a presentation about the use of social media in marketing. In that case, you should organize it into groups by type (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and by time (2009-2012, 2012-present). This way, people will not be overwhelmed by the amount of information and recall it better.


  • Advertising often uses the primacy and recency effects to its advantage. The first thing that people see, read or hear is important. When advertising, it’s best to make the most crucial information at the beginning and end of the advertisement. Your brain will remember the first and last pieces of information from a list better than the middle.
  • To-do lists
  • If you have a big assignment to do, it’s best to write it as the first item on your list. You will most likely focus on your entire task and not just the beginning and middle.
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The serial position effect is a phenomenon in which the last items presented in a list have a greater influence on people’s memory. Memory recall can be affected by other factors such as motivation, fatigue, length of the list, and type of information. A human working memory stores transitory information that is transmitted to other memory units.

Items placed first in a list are called primacy items, while those at the end are recency items. Results from an experiment show that people tend to remember the information presented at the beginning and end of a list better than the middle.

The serial position effect is applicable in real-life situations. It can be used when writing to-do lists, grocery shopping, memorizing things, studying, and advertising. This effect can also be avoided or managed to improve recall.

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