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Serial-position effect is the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst. The term was coined by Hermann Ebbinghaus through studies he performed on himself, and refers to the finding that recall accuracy varies as a function of an item's position within a study list. When asked to recall a list of items in any order (free recall), people tend to begin recall with the end of the list, recalling those items best (the recency effect). Among earlier list items, the first few items are recalled more frequently than the middle items (the primacy effect).
One suggested reason for the primacy effect is that the initial items presented are most effectively stored in long-term memory because of the greater amount of processing devoted to them. (The first list item can be rehearsed by itself; the second must be rehearsed along with the first, the third along with the first and second, and so on.) The primacy effect is reduced when items are presented quickly and is enhanced when presented slowly (factors that reduce and enhance processing of each item and thus permanent storage). Longer presentation lists have been found to reduce the primacy effect.
One theorised reason for the recency effect is that these items are still present in working memory when recall is solicited. Items that benefit from neither (the middle items) are recalled most poorly. An additional explanation for the recency effect is related to temporal context: if tested immediately after rehearsal, the current temporal context can serve as a retrieval cue, which would predict more recent items to have a higher likelihood of recall than items that were studied in a different temporal context (earlier in the list). The recency effect is reduced when an interfering task is given. Intervening tasks involve working memory, as the distractor activity, if exceeding 15 to 30 seconds in duration, can cancel out the recency effect. Additionally, if recall comes immediately after the test, the recency effect is consistent regardless of the length of the studied list, or presentation rate.
Amnesiacs with poor ability to form permanent long-term memories do not show a primacy effect, but do show a recency effect if recall comes immediately after study. People with Alzheimer's disease exhibit a reduced primacy effect but do not produce a recency effect in recall.
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