Ever wonder why you can only remember fractions of information? Mostly just the beginning and the end? This is what is called the serial position effect in psychology. Dive into this fascinating psychological phenomenon here.

Serial position effect is a term coined by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. The term was one of the results of his extensive studies on memory. Ebbinghaus tried to test whether memory was in any way orderly.

He recorded himself saying several nonsense three-lettered words and tried to recall them in the same order. He remembered the words at the beginning of the list much better than the ones following those.

It’s like your brain highlighting the important parts and helping you remember better. Understanding the serial position effect in psychology and its definition gives us a peek into how our memory works. It’s not just about lists; it affects how we remember people, numbers, and even what we see online. This effect is a part of everyday life, and it shows us how our brains are wired to remember what’s most important to us.

In psychology, the serial position effect refers to the ability to retain the first and last part of the list better than the middle. These are also known as primary and recency effects, respectively. But the question is, why is the serial position effect important?

What is the serial position effect in psychology?

The serial position effect in psychology refers to a cognitive phenomenon where the order in which items are presented in a list or sequence impacts how well individuals remember and recall those items. This effect is often observed in memory experiments and studies, highlighting the tendencies of primacy and recency effects.

The serial position effect can be divided into two main components:

Primary effect

The science behind the primary effect is that long-term memory welcomes the elements that first enter our memory. As the list continues, it becomes difficult to register the words that are appearing and disappearing rapidly.

Recency effect

On the other hand, the recency effect shows the ability to remember words that are towards the end of the list, as they are conveniently stored in short-term memory and available for retrieval soon after. Together, the two are known as the serial position effect.

What are the models of serial position effect in psychology?

Two models explain the recency effect, the dual model and the single-store model.

The dual model

Within this mode, the significance of short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM) is recognized. The recency effect becomes possible when listed items are retrieved from the easily accessible STM. This demonstrates the clear advantage items have that are towards the end of the list as they are easier to remember and recall.

The distraction technique is used to reflect on the recency effect. For example, between remembering the lists, if you are asked to solve a mathematical question of basic nature (add two and three), you will take a longer time to recall the list because the items move into the LTM and therefore take longer to be retrieved.

The single-store model

Two single-store models explain the recency effect. First is the relative temporal distinctiveness. This theory believes that the time between seeing and recalling the word determines the relative competitiveness of an item’s recovery from memory. Since the last items on the list stand distinct, they are conveniently recalled.

Second is the contextual variability postulating that the retrieval of items from a list depends on how one remembers the list and the context of the study. Given that content varies from item to item, the most recently studied items will have more chances of being recalled while retrieving the list.

Serial position effect psychology examples

Murdoch’s experiment:

Many psychological experiments are testing the memory and the cognitive functions involved in remembering. Most notable is Bennet Bronson Murdock Jr.’s serial position curve study. Sixteen participants, all enrolled in a psychology program, were recruited.

Multiple lists with 10-40 words were shown for a second, and participants were told to reproduce the list in ninety seconds. Murdoch found that the serial position effect persisted regardless of the length of the list.

He believed that middle words were usually forgotten because they are neither allowed enough time to be comprehended for long-term memory, and their place in the short term is replaced as new words are coming along.

Glancer experiment

Another significant contribution towards understanding the serial position effect was the study of Glancer and Cunitz. The experiment aimed to assess whether the order of words in a sequence affected the ability of individuals to remember and recall.

Two hundred forty participants were divided into two groups; group one was allowed to recall immediately after going over a list, while group two had to count backward from thirty before they were allowed to recall the same list. This distraction task interfered with the recency effect, mimicking the same effect as the words in the middle.

However, the primary effect remained. Group one presented the predicted result; the serial position curve, i.e., the recall of words earlier and later in the list, was stronger than the words in the middle.

The experiment was concluded with the acceptance of two storage memories. Participants of both groups demonstrated primary effect as the words were successfully stored in long-term memory (LTM). However, group two failed to maintain the recency effect as the distraction task interfered with short-term memory, unlike the case with the first group.

Serial position effect real-life examples

The serial position effect is not limited to its inherent property. Rather, it is a psychological phenomenon that somewhat defines how we function in the world.

Remembering first impressions

Come to think of it, there are some very interesting examples of serial position effects you can find daily. For example, when sitting with a group of friends, you often talk about what you thought about your friends when you first met them. Chances are, you likely remember what you thought about them first and your opinion of them at present.

A new phone number

Similarly, when someone gives you their phone number, you remember the first few and last digits. Clearly, as Murdoch justified, they are moved into the long-term memory as they are rehearsed more conveniently than the middle part.

Ordering specials

You may have noticed, for example, when dining in a fine restaurant, the waiter mentions the specials for the night. When you try to pick a dish from the specials menu, you seem to remember only the last two or so dishes. This would be the recency effect. This part of the serial position effect believes that things in the immediate past are easier to remember than ones in the distant past.

In debating competitions

Ever heard about saving the best for last? That is what the recency effect is basically. Since it can be easier to remember the ending much better than the beginning, the effect can be advantageous. In debating competitions, competitors use the best argument in the last to leave a sound impression on the audience.

Assessing candidates

In another instance, assume that an HR personnel interviewed about seven candidates throughout the day. By the end of his day, he likely remembers the last candidate best, while other interviews seem to get mixed.

In courts

In courts, the serial position effect becomes a legitimate cause for concern when necessary evidence is difficult to recall by the witnesses.

Restaurant menus

When you go to the restaurant, you might notice that the dishes are mentioned in a certain order. They usually begin with the least expensive dish. The menus use the serial position effect adhering to the fact that clients will opt for the dishes at the top or ones at the bottom, and in this case, hope to draw more attention towards the end of the list.

Real estate

Similarly, in real estate, the clients usually reject the first house, i.e., the primary effect does not have much influence. This is why real estate agents save the best option for last.


In another instance, if you notice, you will find that in supermarkets, products that create relatively more sales are put in the front or towards the end of the aisle instead of those picked up less.


In designing websites, the services or products that are offered are either at the top of the landing page or at the bottom. This is again for convenience as well as to have the most impact on the customer’s decisions. Additionally, the product reviews that you often see towards the end of the web pages are also an effort to maximize the serial position effect.

Learning techniques

This serial position can be used as a learning technique as well. Given that the words at the top and bottom of the list are remembered easily, you can shuffle the items in the lists to remember the complete list.

Similarly, online businesses try to follow the same rules. The products they aim to sell are often put at the top or towards the end.

Marketing using serial position effect

Ever wonder why you remember the beginning and end of a commercial more than the middle part? That’s the Serial Position Effect, and it’s a big deal in marketing!

Marketers use the Primacy Effect at the beginning of advertisements. Do you know those catchy phrases at the start of a commercial? They’re there because your brain likes to remember what it hears or sees first. So, the important information goes at the beginning to stick in your memory.

Salespeople also play this game. When does a sales pitch start with something attention-grabbing? They’re using the Primacy Effect, too, aiming to make a great first impression.

Even in the digital world, your brain has a pattern. When do you click on links at the top or bottom of a webpage more often? Well, that’s because our eyes follow a pattern that looks like the letter “F” on a page. We start at the top left, then move down. So, marketers put important stuff where we’re more likely to look.

Now, let’s talk about the Recency Effect. Ever seen ads that end with a call to action, like “Buy now!”? That’s using the Recency Effect. Our brains tend to remember what’s said last, so marketers use that to make sure you remember what they want you to do.

Even just showing a brand’s logo at the end of an ad? Thanks to the Recency Effect that can make you remember the brand better. Also, because of this effect, we sometimes give too much importance to the newest information we’ve seen or heard. So, if a brand says their product is almost sold out, we might feel more inclined to buy it.

In everyday life, the Serial Position Effect is everywhere. For example, Amazon. They put the hottest products at the top of their website, current deals in the middle, and recommendations based on what you’ve looked at, at the end.

So, next time you’re watching a commercial or scrolling through a webpage, remember – marketers are using your brain’s quirks to ensure you remember what they want!

What are the theories of the Serial Position effect in psychology?

While the psychological definition and the concept are intriguing, what’s even more interesting is that this serial position effect is actually a cognitive bias. It means that our brain works to simplify information it receives through shortcuts like associations or personal experiences and preferences.

Through systematic exploration and rigorous study, various theories have been formulated to unravel the mechanisms that underlie this fascinating cognitive phenomenon. Delving into these theories illuminates the intricate interplay between memory processes, attention allocation, and the distinctiveness of items.

In this section, we embark on a journey to explore these theories, each shedding light on a unique facet of the serial position effect’s enigmatic nature.

Levels of processing theory

Levels of processing theory believe in only one memory and suggest that remembering depends on the level of effective information processing. Perhaps this explains why we tend to remember the first part of a sequence more readily than the rest of it. As information processing decreases down the line, the primary effect is clear.

Interference theory

Do you remember what you had for dinner last Tuesday night? Why do we forget information? It’s easier to recall the next day, but as time passes, remembering gets trickier.

This happens because all the meals you’ve had since then start blending, making it hard to recall that one specific dinner. This is the interference theory of forgetting, where memories interfere with each other.

This theory resonates closely with the serial position effect. The combination of the two can be used to explain the following situation. You forget your grocery list at home. You remember the first and last thing on the list well, but on recalling, the third and seventh items on the list look similar.

Imagine your school days two months ago; they’re hard to remember due to many similar days. But special events, like your graduation or wedding, stand out as they’re unique.

The same idea applies to the serial position effect, where you better remember the first and last items on a list. If you forget your shopping list, the first and last items are clear, but those in the middle might blur together.

Two types of interference exist:

  • Retroactive (new info affects old memories)
  • Proactive (old info hinders new memories).

While you can’t eliminate interference, you can reduce it. Rehearsing new info and avoiding back-to-back similar topics helps. Changing your routine and switching subjects during study sessions fight interference too. Sleep also helps turn new memories into lasting ones.

So, next time you forget a meal or struggle with school memories, remember that interference is at play!

Decay theory of forgetting

The trace theory of memory explains how our brain creates a memory “trace” through physical and chemical changes. Information in our short-term memory lasts only a few seconds unless we actively think about it again. If we don’t, the memory trace quickly fades.

According to this theory, the time between forming and recalling a memory determines whether we remember it well or forget it. Short time intervals help us remember more, while longer gaps lead to forgetting and weaker memory.

The idea that memories fade over time is ancient; even Plato thought so. Psychologist Ebbinghaus later supported this with experiments. However, this theory has challenges. In real life, many things happen between learning something and recalling it. For instance, a student might experience a lot between learning and testing their knowledge.

Is forgetting the start date of the American Revolutionary War solely due to time passing since learning it in class? Or do other experiences affect recall? Testing this is hard as we can’t eliminate all influences on memory creation and recall.

Another issue is that decay theory doesn’t explain why some memories vanish faster than others. Novelty matters; you’ll remember your first college day more than the days between. New experiences stand out, while routine ones blur together.

Retrieval failure theory

Have you ever had moments when you know you know something but can’t quite remember it? Two common reasons for this memory slip are how memories are formed and the cues we use to retrieve them.

One key reason we forget is that some info didn’t make it into our long-term memory to begin with. Let’s try an interesting test by researchers Nickerson and Adams. Imagine drawing the back of a penny from memory. Now, compare your drawing with a real penny.

Did you notice how your drawing wasn’t quite accurate? You might have remembered the coin’s general shape and color, but the details were fuzzy. Why’s that?

Here’s the trick: you don’t need all the small details of a penny’s back to tell it apart from other coins. Your brain focuses on what’s important—size, shape, and color. So, when you can’t recall the exact details, it’s because your brain never stored them in your memory in the first place.

It’s like your brain didn’t take a detailed snapshot of the penny’s back because it didn’t think it was necessary for your daily life.

Cue dependent theory of forgetting

Ever experienced having info in your mind but struggling to remember it? Researchers say sometimes it’s like the data is there, but you need a little nudge to bring it back. These nudges are called retrieval cues, like clues that help unlock memories.

Think of it this way: when you first stored a memory, certain things were around, like a scent, a sound, or a place. These become the cues. Imagine your first date with your spouse. If you smell the same perfume your partner wore back then, those memories might flood back. Why?

Because that scent was there when the memory formed, so it helps you retrieve it now. Cues are like keys to your memory vault!


The psychological concept known as the serial position effect highlights our propensity to recall the initial and final items on a list more effectively than those in the middle. This phenomenon’s practical applications span many fields, from effective marketing strategies to our routine interactions. Furthermore, theories like the levels of processing theory, interference theory, and retrieval failure theory provide valuable insights into the mechanisms of the serial position effect.

We can refine our learning approaches by grasping how our memory allocation prioritizes certain information, leading to improved retention rates. Ultimately, the serial position effect grants us profound insights into the intricate dynamics of human memory and cognition, leaving its imprint on diverse realms such as cognitive psychology and daily practical decisions.


Nabeel Ahmad is the founder and editor-in-chief of Lone Mind. Apart from Lone Mind, he is a serial entrepreneur, and has founded multiple successful companies in different industries.

Write A Comment