Primacy Bias

A quote which is an example of primacy bias.

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What is primacy bias?

Primacy bias refers to the tendency to better remember the initial information compared to information presented later on. It serves as a cognitive shortcut for efficient information processing but is not always correct.

In simpler words, we can remember the first few items from a list better than the items listed in the middle. 

Primacy bias is closely connected to anchoring bias since both involve giving excessive importance to initial information. In primacy bias, the first piece of information is most memorable, while in anchoring bias, you depend too heavily on the first piece of information encountered, referred to as the ‘anchor.’

What is the difference between primacy and recency bias?

Primacy bias and recency bias are opposites of each other and are closely related to the different memory systems. Primacy bias is focused on the first piece of information available, stored in your long-term memory, whereas recency bias is focused on the most recent information available, stored in your short-term memory according to Glanzer and Cunitz (1966).

The difference between primacy and recency bias explained.

What causes primacy bias?

There are, among others, a few reasons to explain the occurrence of primacy bias in our ability to remember information: 

  • Repetition. People tend to repeat information to remember them better, making it more likely to be stored in your long-term memory. The first items on a long list are encountered first and therefore practised more than the middle items, which makes people recall the first items better compared to the middle items.

  • Attention span. People often do not have a long attention span and mainly pay attention in the beginning and at the end of a presentation. In between, they zone out which you will probably recognise when listening to a podcast or watching a video.      

  • Memory limitations. Our brain filters what information to store and what to forget. The first information goes to our long-term memory and the most recent information to our short-term memory. The remaining information in the middle is often forgotten.

Primacy bias example

A good example of primacy bias (or the primacy effect) is shown in a study by Ley (1978). They researched what patients could remember from their visit to the doctor compared to the actual transcripts of the consultation. The result was that patients could only remember half of the information and it was mostly the information given at the beginning (Henderson, 1999). 

Another great example is by Asch (1946), a pioneer in social psychology. He studied the primacy effect in the impressions that people had of others. The participants were presented a list of the character traits from a fictional person, either beginning with the positive traits or the negative traits.

  1. Intelligent, industrious, impulsive, stubborn, and envious.

  2. Envious, stubborn, impulsive, industrious, and intelligent. 

He found that participants that were presented with the positive traits first had a more favourable impression of the other person compared to participants who had the negative traits listed first, influenced by primacy bias. 

What is primacy bias in interviews

Primacy bias can be influential in interviews. Hiring managers could remember candidates who were interviewed first and last better than the candidates in the middle due to primacy and recency bias. 

Example:

A hiring manager had 5 interviews in one day. The first candidate was chosen to be the most fit the next day, as the hiring manager stated that ‘the first candidate with their qualifications stuck with me the most and made the best impression on me’. Primacy bias could have misled this decision, because the skills from the third one would have actually been the best fit, but that interview is not vividly present in the mind of the hiring manager anymore. 

Additionally, primacy bias is closely interlinked with anchoring bias and the halo– and horns effect. These early interview perceptions heavily influence a hiring manager’s overall opinion of a candidate due to the brain’s tendency to better recall initial information.

Example:

A qualified candidate is very nervous for the interview and therefore comes across as shaky and anxious in the beginning. This caused the hiring manager to form a negative first impression. Due to primacy bias, this first impression is leading to the decision not to hire this candidate.

How to overcome primacy bias?

  • Awareness. Overcoming primacy bias starts with acknowledging its existence. By recognizing your tendency to heavily weigh the first information you receive about a candidate, you can consciously strive to give equal weight to subsequent details, ensuring a more balanced evaluation of a candidate.

  • Step-by-step evaluation. Break down your assessment process into distinct steps. This approach allows you to systematically evaluate different aspects of a candidate’s qualifications rather than forming a hasty judgement based solely on initial impressions, reducing the impact of primacy bias.

  • Taking the time for a decision. Invest the effort to thoroughly research and gather comprehensive information about a candidate before forming an opinion. By delving deeper into their qualifications, experiences, and references, you can build a more well-rounded perspective, reducing the influence of early biases.

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