Bias Eraser #8: The Primacy & Recency Effects

by Greg Barnett, Ph.D.

Will Rogers is famous for saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  This is a sentiment that is carefully heeded by all serious sales job candidates and its importance is reflected in the hundreds of articles written by talent gurus trying to help job seekers nail that next opportunity. But the wisdom on leaving the right impression doesn’t stop there.  Many experts and well-known career websites also provide in-depth guidance on “how to leave a lasting impression” and still even others suggest “your last impression is as important as your first impression.”

Wow, let’s face it.  The big conclusion is that impressions matter a whole lot in the sales hiring process.  And it seems that what matters most is what we do first and what we do last.  But what about all that “stuff” sales candidates do in the middle?  The extensive interviewing, question answering, and conversations that take place between the first time and the last time?  Is that all meaningless?  Unfortunately, the experts are right, but not for the reasons you might think.  They are providing sage advice designed to take advantage of two well known and related cognitive biases… The Primacy and Recency Effects.  

The Primacy Effect and the Recency Effects Explained

The Primacy Effect is a bias that refers to our tendency to remember the first pieces of information we hear rather than information we hear later.  So first impressions matter because our brains are more likely to recall those first interactions with people rather than information that comes later in the process.  This can be good or bad news depending on what that first interaction is like.  If a sales candidate starts with a joke, you will likely remember their humor more than the job-related information you are seeking in the interview.  On the other hand, if a well-qualified sales candidate shows up late or makes a typo on a resume, despite all other signs pointing to potential excellence, that one event or mistake may remain salient as a reason to disqualify them. 

The Primacy Effect also rears its ugly bias head when interview order affects our judgment of talent.  For example, when we interview several sales candidates on the same day, we are more likely to remember the first candidate and for this reason, they will likely be the standard by which all other candidates are evaluated.  This means that much better-qualified candidates may not receive a fair evaluation because they are simply interviewing later in the process.  In the immortal words of Ricky Bobby (of Talladega Nights fame)  “if you ain’t first you are last.”   

Whereas the Primacy Effect is about the information that came first, the Recency Effect is a bias about the information we see last.  It probably comes as no surprise that we tend to remember information and events that we have most recently being exposed to. As such, it turns out that it is important to leave a lasting impression, even though it shouldn’t be. Similar to the examples for the Primacy Effect, when interviewing sales candidates, you are more likely to remember the last interaction better than any others.  So when it comes to decision-making time, it is easy to make a biased decision based on what is easier to remember, perhaps that candidate closing on a high note, rather than all of the other signals related to job performance potential you should be evaluating.  Conversely, if a sales candidate misspeaks, tells a bad joke, or decides to get serious about compensation requirements, that last interaction could lead to talent decision-making that goes astray.  And let’s not forget the misfortune of being candidate 3 out of 5 to interview on the same day.  They may have to shine very bright to be fairly evaluated against that memorable but potentially less-qualified, final candidate of the day. 

The Primacy and Recency Effects are cognitive biases that hurt our ability to make high-quality decisions and damage organizations’ abilities to fulfill their diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives.  Working in concert, they lead to decisions that have little to do with future job success.  Being the first or last candidate shouldn’t impact someone’s ability to get a job, but it does.  And first and last impressions aren’t what predict job performance, it should be all of the important job-related information that is being covered in the middle.  There is nothing wrong with making a strong first and last impression, but as hiring professionals we need to erase this bias and make our decisions on objective, job-related information.  

  1. Make the first impression one that is based on objective data.  If the first thing you know and recall about a candidate is that they have a high potential to be successful in the job, then this is a data point worth remembering.  At PerceptionPredict, we build highly predictive models of future job performance which are designed to provide decision-makers with an estimate of sales performance before a candidate is hired.  If the results suggest that a job seeker is likely to attain 200% of quota, then this is a bias-free first impression that has a rightful place in talent decision-making.  Second, while it is not possible to completely avoid the interview order effects, objective talent assessment data will help even the playing field by providing bias-free data that can serve as a counterbalance to interview order.  If that first candidate was the gold standard and the final one ended on a high note, objective data can be used to verify or contradict those potentially biased impressions.  
  2. Remove the first and last impressions from the interview process by implementing a structured interview system.  Structured interview processes are designed to provide all candidates with the same job-relevant questions and a standard scoring methodology that helps interviewers consistently and objectively rate interview responses.  In practice, this means that sales candidates are judged on how they respond to every question they are asked, and not just the first or last ones.  Further, in structured interviews, raters are expected to score responses immediately to eliminate any need to remember the quality or substance of a candidate’s response later.  This means a candidate’s scores should not be impacted by the Primacy or Recency Effect.  Finally, because all candidates are interviewed and scored the same, there is much less benefit to being the first or last to go.
  3. Avoid reviewing resumes or cover letters until later in the process.  Both of these documents typically represent the very first piece of information we ever see on a candidate yet they are not particularly useful for predicting future job performance.  It’s true that a resume can inform about skills and experience and a cover letter can shed some additional light on who a candidate is, but both of these are tools that are designed to take advantage of the Primacy Effect.  Whether it is the choice of language, the content, or the design, they may leave a lasting memory that has little to do with potential success in the job.  And the resume, in particular, is chock full of potentially biasing information about a person’s gender, age, ethnicity/race, or socioeconomic status.  All information that unnecessarily biases our talent decision-making because it sticks out as something we remember about the candidate whether we realize it or not.   Instead, use the resume towards the middle to end of the sales hiring process where initial impressions, based on objective data, have already eliminated some of the potential for bias.

The Primacy and Recency Effect are powerful human biases that can do great harm to  salesforce quality and diversity.  Luckily, there are tried and true methods for erasing their effects, and investing in them is a small cost for the value they return.  Want to learn more?  Check out these articles by ERE Media,  the Decision Lab, and Verywellmind.

Originally posted and more content from Dr. Greg found here: