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The Serial Position Effect

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus

In our last blog post, we discussed Herman Ebbinghaus’s definition of the “Recency Effect,” and its implications in the workplace when it comes to performance reviews, product pitches, and leaving a lasting impression on others.

However, Ebbinghaus had another important contribution to the psychological study of memory and biases, which is equally impactful when it comes to analyzing its role in the workplace. Ebbinghaus reported that our ability to remember an item in a list is determined by the item’s position in said list. In other words, the “serial position effect”: the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst.

Think about your grocery list, or think back to studying for tests in grade school. Our brains always hold on to the beginnings and endings. Don’t believe it? Try to name the first 5 presidents of the U.S., the most recent 5, and then try to remember as many as you can from in between. The last challenge was probably more difficult than the first two!

So, how does this concept relate to our work lives? For one, this effect has a big role in marketing initiatives, where advertisers know that the positive attributes of a product must be obvious at the beginning and ending of a commercial, since that is what will be remembered. The effect is also important when speaking to others – whether on a grand, public scale or in a regular office meeting. You might lose attention in the middle, so ensure the important notes are mentioned at the opening and closing! In fact, the same advice even holds through for sending emails; don’t lose the important pieces in the middle!

Start and end strong!

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