Skip to Content

Examples of the Serial Position Effect

The serial position effect refers to the tendency to be able to better recall the first and last items on a list than the middle items. Psychology Hermann Ebbinghaus noted during his research that his ability to remember the items on a list depended on the position of the item on the list. An example of the serial position effect would include being able to remember items at the beginning and end of a list better than those in the middle.

Serial Position Effect Examples

Here are some examples of the serial position effect:

Primacy Effect

Participants in a study are given a list of words to remember. When asked to recall the words, they are more likely to remember the words presented at the beginning of the list. This is because those words had more time to be rehearsed and encoded into long-term memory.

Recency Effect

Participants in a study are given a list of words to remember. When asked to recall the words immediately after seeing the list, they are more likely to remember the words presented at the end of the list. This is because those words are still in short-term memory and haven’t had a chance to be displaced or forgotten.

Serial Position Curve

When plotting the likelihood of recall for each word in a list, researchers often find a pattern where recall is highest for the first few items (primacy), drops in the middle, and then rises again for the last few items (recency).

Speeches and Presentations

In speeches or presentations, people tend to remember the opening and closing statements more vividly than the middle content. This is why speakers often strive to start and end their presentations strongly.

Shopping Lists

When making a shopping list, people are more likely to remember the first few items they wrote down and the last few items they added, but may struggle to recall items added in the middle.

Learning a Sequence of Movements

When learning a sequence of movements or steps, such as playing a musical piece or performing a dance routine, individuals may find it easier to remember the beginning and end of the sequence but may struggle with the middle part.

These examples demonstrate how the serial position effect influences memory recall in various contexts.

How the Serial Position Effect Works

Ebbinghaus created a list of nearly 2,000 nonsense syllables that were consonant-vowel-consonant combinations and then tested his own ability to recall lists of these invented “words.” He used these nonsense syllables to eliminate the possible impact on word meaning and familiarity on recall.

Imagine that you have been given a list of random words and are allowed two minutes to try and memorize the list. Later, when you are asked to recall the items in any order, you will most likely begin to list items that were last on the list, a tendency known as the recency effect. The next items you list will probably be the first few items on the list, a tendency known as the primacy effect.

Explanations for the Serial-Position Effect

Why does the position of the items on a list impact the ability to recall them? A few different explanations have been proposed:

Jensen’s Theory of the Serial-Position Effect

Jensen suggested that that attention plays a key role in the serial position effect. Because people pay greater attention to the first and last items, they are more likely to recall them. Jensen suggested that these serve as an “anchor point” for learning the rest of the information.

However, some critics suggest that this theory is too vague and does not sufficiently address the learning mechanisms that are involved.

Feigenbaum and Simon’s Information-Processing Theory

Researchers Feigenbaum and Simon proposed a theory suggesting that anchor points and a “macro-processing system” explain the serial-position effect. In a paper briefly outlining this process, they explain:

“The function of the macroprocesses is to focus the attention of the microprocesses successively on the stimulus-response item pairs which comprise the learning task. For any pair, the primary learning process is as follows: Learn to discriminate the S item from all items in the set already learned; do the same for the R item; finally, construct an association between S and R.”

The Atkinson and Shiffrin Model

The Atkinson and Shiffrin model relies on the workings of memory to explain the serial-position effect. Once something is recognized, it is then moved into short-term memory. If this information in short-term memory is rehearsed, it may then be moved into long-term memory.

Short-term memory, however, is limited in terms of both capacity and duration. Because initial items remain in short-term memory longer, they are more likely to be transferred to long-term memory via rehearsal.

The theory suggests that serial-position effects happen because the first items on a list have to be retrieved from long-term memory, thus strengthening their place in memory. The last items on the list, however, are still present in short-term memory and thus easily retrieved without the need for rehearsal.

Temporal Effects on the Serial Position Effect

The amount of time that lapses between the presentation of the list and attempted recall can also influence the serial position effect. The recency effect is more likely to occur if a person is tested immediately after the presentation of a list. If something occurs between the presentation of the list and recall attempts, the recency effect is less likely to occur.


Cortis Mack, C., Cinel, C., Davies, N., Harding, M., & Ward, G. (2017). Serial position, output order, and list length effects for words presented on smartphones over very long intervalsJournal of Memory and Language97, 61–80.

Ranjith, N. (2012). Serial position curve. In: Seel, N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA.

Troyer, A.K. (2011). Serial position effect. In: Kreutzer, J.S., DeLuca, J., Caplan, B. (eds) Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology. Springer, New York, NY.

  1. […] serial position effect appears to be caused by the interactions between our different types of memory: the first items in […]

  2. […] relative position greatly affects our ability to recall at a later time. This, also known as the serial position effect, occurs due to the limited holding capacity in our short-term (working) […]

Comments are closed.