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The Primacy Effect

by 
 
Jun 7, 2019

One of the simplest questions to ask about consumer behavior is “does order matter?” In other words, does the order in which you present things to your customers affect their decisions? It may or may not surprise you, but yes, order matters. In fact, order matters for a lot of things.

“Primacy”

First of all, memory is sensitive to order. People are more likely to recall words (or any information) from a list when they encounter them toward the beginning or toward the end of the list, a phenomenon first described in 1913 by Hermann Ebbinghaus.

There are two separate effects of order: “Primacy,” in which people pay more attention to the first thing they read or hear, and “Recency,” in which people are (surprise!) better able to remember more recent information.

While Primacy and Recency both occur for memory, this is not always the case for decision making.

When people are choosing from a list, they often display a strong Primacy effect. In other words, if something is earlier in the list, people are more likely to choose it. It doesn’t matter if the list is ordered top-to-bottom or left-to-right, and it also (usually) doesn’t matter if people see the whole list at once or one item at a time. If you want people to click on something, put it earlier in the list.

An important exception to this rule of Primacy is that it only arises when people are reading their options. If people are listening to their choices, then they are actually more likely to pick the last option. Obviously most online decision making is done through reading and clicking, but if you ever decide to incorporate more sound or video into your website, don’t forget to rely on Recency!

It’s Everywhere

The fact that we are more likely to choose the first things they read can impact a lot of what we do. One of the more concerning consequences of Primacy was documented in a 1998 paper by Joanne Miller and Jon Krosnick (then at Ohio State). The authors looked at results from the 1992 elections in Ohio, and examined 118 individual races. In half of those races, particularly in counties where interest in politics was lower, the candidate listed first tended to get 2.5% more of the total vote.

In the context of online advertising and SEM, naturally it is always desirable to be high in search results to increase visibility. However, it also helps to appear higher on the list of ads that Google shows on the right-hand side of the search results. As people work their way down the list, they will be more interested in the first few items.

These results give a good hint for when and why people are more likely to choose the first option. One of the most important (and obvious) things to keep in mind is that customers with a strong preference will select their preferred option no matter where it is in the list. Primacy arises for people who aren’t sure exactly what they want, and in this case one of two things can happen:

On one hand, people may not be interested in making the decision and will simply choose the first thing presented to them because it is easiest (unfortunately, this is probably the explanation for what happens during elections).

On the other hand, people may examine their options in order to make a good choice, but will naturally get cognitively tired as they go. Because they start with the first option, they end up thinking about the first option more than any other option. This leads them to feel like they understand the first one best, and it becomes the most comfortable choice (note that most people often don’t realize when they are doing this). A good example of this comes from a 1969 study by Vernon Stone in the psychology of law: mock jurors who read prosecution arguments before defense arguments tended to vote “guilty,” and vice versa.

This second explanation is important because it suggests that the order in which people consider informationinfluences their decisions. In other words, people naturally place more weight on the first pieces of information that they see and think about. In a 2007 paper, Eric Johnson, Gerald Haubl, and Anat Keinan found that people who thought first about things they liked about a product (in their case, a coffee mug), instead of thinking about the price of the product, valued the product more. Because they had considered the positive qualities first, they unconsciously felt that these positive traits were more important.

Control the Order

The tendency for customers to show a Primacy effect lends itself to a number of possible applications. The most obvious use is to put an item at the beginning of a choice set or list when you want people to choose that item. This could be for pushing certain products, in which case it would be a great way to strengthen other choice effects (such as improving the Compromise Effect by placing the compromise option first), for getting customers to endorse a statement to which you want them to stick (as I discussed in my post on the Foot-in-the-Door Effect), or for getting higher click-through on a specific online advertisement.

More subtly, Primacy also has important implications for any market research you might try to conduct with your customers or clients. If you have a survey or are asking multiple-choice questions, the Primacy effect may lead to you getting answers biased towards the first choice. To fix this, you should randomize the order of choices in any situation where you want unbiased results.

Equally as important as controlling the order of options is controlling the order of information. It is not uncommon to see an advertisement present its strongest argument in the biggest letters for this exact reason: if people notice it first, they will process it first and give it more weight.

Why can’t this be done with an online retail layout? The main points of value for each product can be made especially visible, while price is relegated to a smaller font or may not even be visible without clicking through to a product page. Note that this is the exact opposite of what many sites do, which is to display price upfront but require customers to click through in order to see the details that will make them want to buy.

If your customers see the positive details about your product before they have to evaluate the price, they will be inclined to value it more highly.

Takeaways

  1. If you want more customers to choose a specific item (out of a list, choice set, or anything else they are reading), put that item first in line.
  2. Make sure your customers see positive information before negative information because they will put more weight on whatever they process first.


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