What Is the Serial Position Effect?

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2017)

The serial position effect refers to our tendency to be able to recall the first and last items on a list better and the middle items worse. 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. Ebbinghaus created a list of nearly 2,000 nonsense syllables that were consonsant-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 like 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.

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

“In Jensen’s view, the items on a list that are learned first, or best, are the ones to which the learner first attends (i.e., the first item or twho in the list), and these first-learned items then serve as an ‘anchor point’ for learning the rest of the list. Jensen’s theory, however, has been criticized because of its vagueness concerning the basic learning mechanism and the implausibility of the argument concerning the attachment of the items to “expanding” anchor points.” (Roeckelein, )

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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

“Once a word was recognized, it passed from sensory memory to short-term memory. If it remained in short-term memory and was rehearsed, then the word was transferred to the long-term store. By assuming a limited capacity to the short-term store, the initial items on the list remained in the short-term store longer than the later items. Once the capacity of the store was exceeded, a new word entered only by displacing a previous word. So, the initial list of items remained in short-term memory long enough to be transferred via rehearsal to long-term memory. Thus, the primacy effect arises from the retrieval of information from long-term memory. The recency effect, on the other hand, reflects retrieval from the short-term store. The final words on the list still reside in the short-term store and can be retrieved so long as recall is immediate; in other words, they did not need to be rehearsed.” (Kellogg, 2003)

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Temporal Effects

The amount of time that lapses between 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 presentation of a list. If something occurs between the presentation of the list and attempts at recall, the recency effect is less likely to occur.


Kellogg, R. T. (2003). Cognitive psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Feigenbaum, E. A., & Simon, H. A. (1963). Brief notes on the EPAM theory of verbal learning. In C. N. Confer & B. S. Musgrave (Eds.). Verbal behavior and learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Roeckelein, J. E. (2006). Elsevier’s dictionary of psychological theories. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.