Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Memory and the Recency Effect

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It’s tempting to think that knowing about a cognitive bias or logical fallacy makes them immune to it. I’m no exception, but I constantly find myself falling prey to the recency effect, or recency bias. The good news is that I catch myself from time to time — the bad news is that I have no idea how many instances slip through.

The recency effect describes a condition where the most recent information you learned has a disproportionate impact on your opinion about a topic. I find myself watching TV programs or reading articles where the author sets out arguments on an issue and I often think, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I’ll have to revise my opinion.” The rest of the time I think, “Yeah, right” and move on with my day. If the topic’s one I don’t know much about, the information I just learned will affect my view more than it would if I knew a lot about the issue.

As I mentioned in my review of The Gamble, published here and on Technology and Society Book Reviews, the Romney 2012 presidential campaign managers attempted to use the recency effect to their candidate’s advantage. The authors cited a significant body of research showing that political ads sway opinion, but only for a few days at most before viewers’ opinions revert to their personal baselines. The Romney campaign took out a large number of ads in the days before the election in hopes of using the recency effect to their advantage. In fact, the campaign bought the entire available ad inventory in several states. Rather than leave the money in the bank, they bought ads in states they deemed less important.

If you really want to see the recency effect in action, watch the U.S. stock markets whenever major events occur. Every bit of news causes the markets to move as investors try to out-guess each other and make a profit on competitors’ decisions. I’m not sure how much of the action is individual speculators trying to get a jump on the market and others trying to guess the reactors’ reactions (and so on up the chain), but the short-term volatility can be astonishing.

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