In A List Of Items, The First And Last Are Most Memorable


Order is key

Remember when you had to sit for those weekly vocabulary tests during elementary school? They might have only consisted of ten words but studying for them was always really difficult. Did you ever notice that when you quizzed yourself, you could easily recall the first and last words (but hardly ever the ones in the middle), even after going over the list countless times? This phenomenon is known as the ‘serial position effect’.

As stated above, this is an effect that occurs when you are trying to memorize lists, otherwise called ‘rote memorization’, and end up only remembering the first and last objects. First documented in a study in 1962 by a researcher named Murdock, this effect is broken into two different parts, which can be demonstrated by a U-shaped curve. Imagine that the ‘U’ shape represents the list. We refer to the first point as the primacy effect, and this is where our recollection of the first object on the list lies. As you follow the slope curve of the ‘U’, you will pass the objects in the middle, and reach the second point. Symbolising the recency effect, it illustrates our recollection of the last object on the list.

The reason why we tend to fall victim to this serial effect is because we are inclined towards starting a task with intense focus, lose said focus as the task wears on, and finally, attempt to complete the task on a strong note. Additionally, since the last word on the list will be the most recent thing you read, it becomes that much easier to recall later on. With this explanation in mind, it makes complete sense that we would be able to better recall a list’s first and last items.

But what if you were not told how long the list was? Would this effect take place just as strongly if the list was, say, a hundred words long? Food for thought.



Edited by Seraphina Leong



Athabasca University. (2005). Experiment Description: Free Recall and the Serial Position Effect. Retrieved from

Indiana University. (n.d.). Serial Position Effect and Rehearsal. Retrieved from

McLeod, S. (2008). Serial Position Effect. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2014). Serial position effect. Retrieved from

WS, T. (2005). Serial position effects in recall of television commercials. Retrieved from

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