The serial position effect is a tendency of the human mind to recollect the first and last items of a sequence/list more easily than the ones in the middle.
In this article, you will learn the impact of the serial position effect on your memory and how to use it for learning better.
Go through the following list of numbers.
27, 33, 18, 48, 83, 92, 48, 68, 53, 72
Now close your eyes and try to recall as many numbers possible. Do it right now.
How many did you remember? I’d say 3-4 unless you’ve learned specific memory techniques or possess eidetic memory like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory.
Whether you could remember only a couple or all 10 of them is irrelevant to the topic. What’s interesting is which among the 10 did you recollect.
Most people will remember the first and the last few digits more often than those in the middle due to the serial position effect.
What is the serial position effect?
The serial position effect is a tendency of the human mind to recollect the first and last items of a sequence/list more easily than the ones in the middle. It is one of the many cognitive biases of the human mind.
Just like the sequence of numbers earlier, if your mother mentioned a list of groceries to buy, you’d have a higher chance of remembering the items she uttered towards the beginning or the end.
A graph plotted for the ability to recall an item vs. its position on the list would look like this:
As you can see, the chances of recall are high at the start, reduce in between, and increase again towards the end. Due to the way it works, Hermann Ebbinghaus named it the serial position effect. Ebbinghaus is well known for his research on the forgetting curve, which describes how quickly information fades away from memory.
The serial position effect does not apply to lists and sequences alone. Let’s take another real-life example. Have you struggled to remember a phone number recited to you when you had no means to note it down? After hearing the 10 digits, you’ll notice that you remember the first and last bits, but those in the middle seem jumbled up.
Why does the serial position effect occur?
The effect is attributed to the human brain’s two other cognitive biases called the primacy effect and the recency effect. Psychology researchers have different theories to justify why they occur. But, since brain science is complicated and relatively new, we do not have enough proof to validate them.
As per the primacy effect, the items at the beginning of a list are easy to remember because of how humans recall things from memory.
When you have a list to memorize, the most common method is to repeat the list starting with the first item. For the second item, you’d repeat the first, followed by the second. To remember the third, you’d start with the first, then the second and finally the third item.
Due to repetition, your mind becomes more familiar with the initial items. Research in psychology has shown that a vast majority of people use the same method to remember a list naturally.
That explains the first half of the serial position effect. Let’s move to the other.
As per the recency effect, you recall the last few items of the list because they are more recent and, therefore, fresh in your mind. Though there are different theories to explain why this occurs, the simplest way to understand the mechanism is by considering the information being retrieved from the short term buffer of the mind.
A 1996 study put this to test by asking two groups of participants to recall a list of items. The first set went through the typical experiment of asking people to list the items soon after going through them.
The second group had a small change in the test. Instead of asking participants to immediately reciting, they were asked to solve a simple arithmetic problem for 30 seconds and then remember the items.
It turned out that the second group could not remember the last few items on the list as accurately as the first group. The research showed that a delayed recall reduces the strength of the recency effect on memory.
Due to these two effects, the serial position effect makes it easier to remember the first and last items. The availability heuristic also goes hand in hand with the recency effect to make the information easy to retrieve.
How to use the serial position effect
By knowing how the serial position effect impacts your memory, you can tweak your learning methods to improve recall.
1. Don’t cram
Have you pulled an all-nighter on the last day of the exam because you were lazy to prepare earlier? Don’t worry, all of us are culprits of that sin.
Whether it a test at school or a presentation at work, do not stay up the whole previous night. Not only will you have dark circles but also have terrible results. Your mind cannot digest such loads at one go, and you’ll have a hard time remembering what you ingested.
To make that worse, such last-minute preparation comes at the cost of reduced sleep. But, your brain needs a good night’s rest to recall what you read. By putting in long hours the previous night, you’re causing more damage than good in more than one way.
You’ll do your best if you prepare in advance, but that’s stating the obvious. Even if you’re unprepared, don’t try to go all guns blazing in one night. Target a small portion, give yourself breaks between the study and get enough sleep. You’ll do far better than a sleepless night of endless reading.
2. Use the Pomodoro technique
Jim Kwik, a top brain coach of the world and the author of the book Limitless, suggests using the serial position effect to your advantage. He recommends using the Pomodoro technique while studying to make use of the effect.
If you’re not familiar with the method, you can read the detailed article linked. In short, the technique involves working on a task for 25 minutes, and taking a short break for 3-5 minutes. You repeat the same until you complete 4 such cycles, after which you take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.
Jim mentions that learning in smaller batches creates more start and end points that trigger more of both the primacy and recency effect.
“Wouldn’t we have a greater benefit by making the sessions even shorter? More start and end points, isn’t it?” you ask. Theoretically, you’re right, so feel free to experiment. The length of 25 minutes was suggested by Francesco Cirillo, the founder of Pomodoro. Many people use shorter and extended versions too.
Be careful about setting sessions shorter than 15 minutes because you’ll have a hard time getting into focus every time you take a break.
3. Force yourself to recall
A common mistake of learning is trying to finish all the material in a sequence. For example, if you have to study for a test, you read all 5 chapters in one go and try to recollect what you learned in the final few minutes. If time is short, you even skip the revision altogether.
What follows is you pulling your hair trying to recall a topic that you know that you’ve read. You feel the information right near your throat, but you can’t get it out.
As human beings, we overestimate our ability to remember things by rushing through the material, assuming we have understood and registered whatever we’ve read. I am sure you’ve experienced the consequences of such overconfidence. I have too.
Instead, break the learning material into parts. If you’re learning 5 chapters, try to recall what you’ve learned at the end of each chapter. Quickly glance through the pages to check if you remember the necessary content. Try to fill the gaps in your memory and understanding before moving to the next chapter.
When you keep going through reading material by revising in parts, you’ll form a solid memory of complete information. Rushing through it is like constructing a building in a hurry. If your foundation isn’t strong enough, you’ll have a flimsy structure at best.
You cannot change how your brain thinks and functions. A lot of its operations are unknown to science at the moment. You’ll not have any success trying to eliminate the serial position effect from your mind. Unless you use a memorization technique, the middle items of a list will always be hard to recall.
Do not try to change how your brain works or be overconfident about your memory. Instead, know the flaws of your mind and learn how to avoid the mistakes.
After all, a few hours of quality learning is far more effective than an all-nighter of cramming.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.