Serial Position Effect Experiment

Serial positioning cover

Psychological experiments are truly unique and give us an in-depth look at the behaviors and the logic behind our actions. Not only do these gave us an insight into the actions but they also provide us with mental processes as well, such as why some people are better at certain things while they struggle at others. Memory is perhaps one of the most observed and tested aspects of our mental functioning and among all the memory experiments, serial positioning is often seen as a significant one.

What is the Serial-Position Effect?

The serial Position effect is referred to the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a list or series the best, while the middle items recollection is the worst. It was first studied by Hermann Ebbinghaus through various studies that he conducted on himself, and even in multiple free recall studies, a psychological test in which participants are presented with a single or multiple lists and are asked to recall the items on the lists in any order. Sometimes the reason behind it is believed to be the greater amount of processing used during initial items, as the first three items are rehearsed automatically by all. Additionally, it is observed when items are presented quickly, the last items are also remembered and when items are presented slowly, it reduces the number of items recalled overall.

Serial position effect first

A graph showing the serial position effect.

The serial position is also sometimes also called by the term primacy effect, in which the tendency to recall the primary items on a list or series is accurate while middle and even the last items are forgotten. The primacy effect can also be seen when a person is distracted while memorizing the list. While another phenomenon, known as the recency effect also plays a role in such studies, where the items at the end of a list are remembered the best.

Serial-Position Effect Experiment

One advantage of this experiment is that it can be performed by anyone, one does not need to be a psychologist in order to carry it out. But before diving into the experiment to do oneself let’s take a look at the experiment conducted by Glanzer and Cunitz in 1966. In this, they had two groups of participants and each group was provided with a list of words. While the first group was asked to recall the words as soon as they were done reading them, the second group was asked to wait 30 seconds before answering, and during this 30 seconds, they were asked to count backward. The idea behind counting is that it will eliminate the recency effect and also this is known as a distraction task. The results showed that the serial-position effect was true and both groups remembered the initial words, however, the second group that was asked to perform a distraction task had trouble recalling the words at the end of the list.

Representation of experiment

Representation of the serial position effect experiment.

If one desires to perform the experiment on their own they can absolutely do it. Of course, there are some settings and variables that must be taken care of while conducting the experiment.

  • Variable: The setting of the test and people.
  • Stimulus: One can use either word that consists of 7-10 alphabets or shorter ones consisting of 3-5 alphabets. Similarly, numbers can be used.
  • Number of words on the list: It can be anywhere from 10 to 15.
  • Duration of each item: A word must be presented from 1 to 5 seconds.

After setting up these basic criteria one can perform this experiment. Simply begin the test by presenting the words for the mentioned duration to the participants and ensure they are not writing them anywhere. After the list is finished, you can either introduce a distraction task or ask the participants to recall the words immediately. Naturally, some participants will struggle to recall words after mentioning a few of them, allow them to recall these for a little duration. Finally, once the recalling process is complete present the group with the original list to confirm the serial position effect.

This experiment is one of the easy ones in the realm of psychology. It helps us understand the workings of our memory both long-term and short-term. Additionally, it is one experiment that can be conducted in classrooms and workplaces easily to help individuals understand this concept better.


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