How the Serial Position Effect Influences Your Users [Cheat Sheet]

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Swetha Amaresan
Swetha Amaresan


When I was younger, I performed in spring musicals. During each performance, everything would start smoothly. We knew which scene we were on and which cues to follow on time. The same happened as we neared the end of the show. The beginning and end were always our strongest points.

shoppers making purchasing decisions off of the serial position effect

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However, something odd would occur in the middle — the cast would start forgetting the scenes or lines. No matter how much we rehearsed, we could never get the middle of the performance perfect because we would forget the order. While you can probably relate to this in your own life, this strange phenomenon is better known as the serial position effect.

In this post, we'll discuss the serial position effect and how understanding the psychology around it can benefit your business. But if you're in a pinch, jump to the information you need below.

who made the serial position effect: hermann ebbinghaus

Two conditions influence the serial position effect — primacy and recency effects.

Primacy Effect

The primacy effect is the phenomenon where things that happen first have greater importance because they influence what comes next. So the longer a list is, the harder it is to remember the first items.

Recency Effect

The recency effect describes how short-term memory preserves items at the end of a list or sequence. So the longer a participant waits, the harder it is to remember the last items on the list.

The serial position effect occurs when these two results happen in the same setting. Information in the middle is likely to be forgotten to prioritize preserving the beginning and end of a series.

To better understand how this phenomenon influences businesses, let's look at examples of the concept in real-life scenarios.

Serial Position Effect Examples

These scenarios don't just happen within an experiment or vacuum — we observe them when customers choose products or services based on presentation.

1. Restaurant Menus

Restaurants often use the serial position effect to entice customers into selecting highly-profitable menu items that may otherwise seem overpriced. Balthazar, a New York City restaurant, places its most expensive items in the top-right corner of the menu — where most diners first look.

serial position effect examples: restaurant menusImage Source

By placing a $115 "Le Balthazar" seafood dish right at the top, your eyes move to the dish beside it — "Le Grand" — which, at $70, seems to be a steal in comparison. Noticing the $115 dish first is a primary effect. People recall the first item while browsing the rest of the menu, making the price of other dishes seem more reasonable.

2. Online Shopping

The serial position effect often comes into play in e-commerce. Think about it — when scrolling through pages on your favorite clothing store's website, you lose track of what you've viewed. You often end up with the first item you clicked on after hours of browsing.

This website selling tents tested this theory. Four choices, all with unique selling points, were placed randomly. Buyers choose the first tent 2.5X more than any other tent in the row.

Image Source

3. Real Estate

When a buyer is looking to purchase a home, the primacy effect doesn't play as significant of a role. Many buyers are less likely to commit to the first option immediately, so they might turn away from the first couple of homes they see.

With this in mind, real estate agents often save the best property for last. After viewing several properties, customer expectations drop. Making the last option seem even more desirable. Comparing the final option to previous options results in the recency effect and preserves the final home in the buyer's short-term memory.

4. Product Reviews

The serial position effect is important when purchasing a product. At first, you may hear about a brand through the company's advertisement. If you liked the ad, the primacy effect would preserve that content in your memory. So, when you purchase, you'll remember that company's message or offer.

Once you've started your customer journey, you'll start researching the business. You may ask a friend about the brand, and they tell you they love it, so you visit the company's website and look at the reviews. Sure enough, the first reviews you see are the "top reviews," each raving about how great this product and company are. While the primacy effect got you to the organization's website, the recency effect helped close the deal.

If you understand how the serial position effect influences customer behavior, you can provide a significant advantage to your marketing, sales, and customer service teams. If you need help figuring out where to get started, here are some tips you can consider when sharing content or products at your business.

Serial Position Effect Best Practices

1. Display the least important information in the middle of an ad.

The key takeaway of the serial position effect is that information shared first or last is the easiest to retain. So when creating content, be sure to put the most critical information at the beginning or end of the message. For example, place the least important content in the middle if you're putting together a 30-second TV ad. If viewers lose focus during your ad, they'll still understand your brand's overall message.

2. If the message is visual, put the most important information at the top and bottom.

When a message is shared visually or through text — like in a newsletter — you should place important links at the very top and bottom. The first link will get clicked on by readers who don't feel like reading through the entire newsletter. The last link will get clicked on by readers who have read to the end or who have skipped straight to the bottom.

3. Leave the star benefits for the end of a pitch.

Ending on a strong note is a great way to become memorable to customers. One way to do this is to leave your most beneficial or attractive product features until the end of the sales pitch. Since customers usually take time to mull things over before purchasing, the last items will stand out more than the beginning or middle ones.

4. Consider how the order of stimulus will affect purchasing decisions.

Consider how customers will first interact with these products for purchases that don't require a sales rep — food, clothes, household items, etc.

For instance, let's say you have a $200 coat on sale for $100. Some customers may become uninterested if they see a big sign that says, "Sale: $100." But, if a customer sees the coat on a rack, tries it on, loves it, then sees the $200 is "50% off," they'll be more inclined to buy it. That's because the recency effect has influenced their buying decision and makes customers feel like they're getting a good deal.

Influence Your Customers In More Ways Than One

Understanding customer behavior can help convince prospects to purchase from more than a convincing sales pitch. It comes down to the way you present your product or service. Optimizing the presentation will give you a better chance of gaining more attention and happy customers.

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Topics: User Testing

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