What Is the Recency Effect?

In This Article

The recency effect is the tendency to remember the most recently presented information best. For example, if you are trying to memorize a list of items, the recency effect means you are more likely to recall the items from the list that you studied last. This is one component of the serial position effect, a phenomenon in which the position of items on a list influences how well those items are recalled.

Overview

The serial position effect was first discovered by the psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus during his memory experiments. He observed that the ability to accurately recall items from a list was dependent upon the location of the item on that list.

Items found at the end of the list that are learned most recently are recalled best (the recency effect), while the first few items are also recalled better than those found in the middle (the primacy effect).

You have probably experienced this effect many times when you try to learn something new. After learning the information, imagine that you are immediately given a test covering material to see how much you have retained. What information do you think you will remember the best?

Chances are that you will have pretty good recall of the things that you learned last or the most recently. You also likely have good recall of the first few things that you learned. It is that information in the middle of your learning session that you are the most likely to struggle with.

The recency effect can tell us a bit about how memory works. You can also find ways to maximize your memory by better understanding how and why this effect takes place.

How It Works

The recency effect is dependent upon short-term memory. This type of memory, also known as active or primary memory, is the ability to hold a relatively small amount of memory in the mind for a brief period of time. This information is held and kept active for use, but it is not manipulated. Briefly storing a phone number someone just recited to you for long enough to dial it is a good example of short-term memory.

Short-term memory is limited in terms of both capacity and duration. Most information in short-term memory only lasts between 20 and 30 seconds without active maintenance or rehearsal. Approximately four pieces of information can be held in short-term memory for a brief period.

Perhaps not surprisingly, delaying recall after hearing a list of items has a dramatic impact on the recency effect. A very long delay between learning items and recalling will often completely eliminate this effect.

In other words, the recency effect may occur because you are able to easily remember those items that are still being briefly stored in your short-term memory. If you do not rehearse that information, however, it will quickly be lost and fade from memory.

Examples

The recency effect can play a role in many different aspects of daily life.

For instance, say you are trying to recall items from your shopping list, which you accidentally left at home. You are easily able to remember the last few things you wrote down, but you can’t seem to recall any of the items in the middle of your list.

Or, the waiter at a restaurant lists a number of different specials. When you are ready to order, you can only recall the last two options that he mentioned.

Another example is as follows: as you are researching a new product you are interested in buying, you’re most likely to pay attention to your first impressions and the last thing you heard about it. If the first thing you hear and the last thing you hear are positive, you are more likely to buy it—even if your research revealed negative information between those two times.

Marketers take advantage of the recency effect by ensuring the beginning and ends of ads are positive and appealing.

Finally, you have an easier time recalling events from your immediate past than you do things from the distant past. For example, while you might have little trouble remembering what you had for breakfast this morning, recalling what you ate two weeks ago would be much more difficult (or even impossible).

Why It Occurs

Both the recency and primacy effects are likely the result of memory processes. There are a few explanations for why the recency effect occurs.

One is that the most recent information is still present in active memory. When testing is conducted immediately after learning, any information that was learned last may still be actively held in short-term memory. This increases the accuracy of recall.

Another explanation is that temporal cues may also help improve recall of the most recently learned information. If a person rehearses a list and is then tested immediately, temporal context can help cue the recall of the information.

Influences

There are also factors that can impact the strength and likelihood of the recency effect occurring. Factors that can influence the occurrence of the recency effect include:

  • Task Factors: This refers to the task itself as well as how the information is processed. The length of the information presented and how it is presented can influence the recency effect. If you were presented a very short list of words, for instance, you might find it easy to recall all the items, essentially eliminating the recency effect. A very long list of terms, on the other hand, would be much more likely to produce recency effects.
  • Processing: How you attend to and process the information as it is presented can also affect how it is recalled.
  • Time: If a long period of time lapses between the presentation and rehearsal of the information and recall, the recency effect is dramatically reduced or even eliminated altogether.
  • Intervening Tasks: Interference can occur if another task or information is presented after the first task. Research has found that if the distracting task takes longer than 15 to 30 seconds, it will eliminate recency effects when trying to recall the original information.

    Impact on Learning

    As you might imagine, the recency effect can play an important role in the learning process. When you are learning new information, you are most likely to remember the things that you study first (the primacy effect) as well as those things you study last (the recency effect). This means that when tested on the material, you are more likely to forget the things that were learned in the middle.

    However, there are things that you can do to adapt your study sessions to take advantage of these memory phenomena. As you structure your study time, realize that the period at the beginning and the period at the end are your prime learning times.

    Try the following steps:

    1. Focus on the most important information at the beginning to take advantage of the primacy effect. This might involve reviewing important terminology or learning new information.
    2. Use the middle of your learning time to read through old material you have already learned. This period is essentially downtime, but it can be useful for reviewing.
    3. Spend the last part of your study session reviewing what you have already learned. This can involve rehearsing those important terms or going over your newly learned material.

    Doing this will help cement newly learned information into your memory and minimize the chances or forgetting the things you learned in the middle of your study session.

    Teachers can also take advantage of the recency effect in how they structure classroom time. The first part of the class should focus on important information. This means skipping over things like basic administrative tasks such as taking attendance and meet-and-greet icebreakers.

    The middle section of class might involve a brief break where these formalities might be better attended to. Finally, those last 10 to 20 minutes of the class should focus on circling back to the most important concepts.

    A Word From Verywell

    The recency effect will play a role in what you learn and recall, but there are things you can do to maximize your memory. Taking steps like breaking up study sessions into shorter periods can help. Spend the last few moments that you focus on something to review the most important details.

    Finally, if you want something you say to stand out in someone’s mind, make sure you convey the most important information right at the end. This can apply to your daily conversations, or when you are trying to persuade someone to see things your way, or even during job interviews. First impressions are also critical, but thanks to the recency effect, your parting words can be just as powerful.

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    Article Sources
    • Banyard, P, Dillon, G, Norman, C, & Winder, B. Essential Psychology. Los Angeles: Sage; 2010.