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.
How It 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 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.
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.
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 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.