The Recency and Primacy Effects in the Talent Acquisition Process

In the Aprilcrl_masthead 2010 Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership, I have an article about two very important bias factors in the hiring process. I’ll talk about them in detail and give you ideas for preventing them.

For now, I wanted to give you just a quick overview.

The two biases are the recency and primacy bias effects.

The recency bias error occurs when an assessor (i.e. recruiter, hiring manager, etc.) is overly affected by information that was presented later (more recently) rather than earlier in any given selection process. In contrast, the primacy bias error occurs when an assessor’s selection is made based on information that was presented earlier (primary information) rather than later in a process. And although the effects appear symmetrically opposing, the research shows that they occur because of different reasons, and that their implications can differ drastically. They are not equal but opposite.

An exemplary candidate who shows up late to an interview but does well on the interview itself may suffer the consequences of the primacy effect. A candidate who shows up on time, does well but says something toward the end of the interview that can be described as intensely negative, might suffer the consequences of the recency effect.

The body of research points to two process models on how decisions are made in the interview process. The first we will describe is the step-by-step (SbS) decision-making model, and the second is the end-of sequence (EoS) decision-making model. We call those models response modes.

The step-by-step decision-making model is where a decision-maker evaluates a candidate incrementally and develops a view of that candidate. That view becomes the “anchor.” Then as more information is presented, the new information is added to the anchor view and a new anchor (hence new view) is formed. This process occurs until all segments of the interview process are completed. With every new anchor and every new set of data about a candidate a new anchor is formed.

The end-of-sequence response mode is self explanatory. Judgment on a candidate is withheld until the final stage of the interview process.

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The best example to understanding bias effects comes from a study performed by Scott Highhouse and Andrew Gallor of Bowling Green State University and Indiana University respectively. In their article titled “Order Effects in Making Personnel Decision Making” published in Human Performance in 1997, they performed a study to understand where bias effects take place.

In short they found that in a long interview process, regardless of the complexity of the interview and decision-making type (response mode) of the decision maker, that primacy dominated. In other words, the term we commonly use for our initial cognitive anchor, “first impressions” dominated the views of the interviewers of the applicants.

In the case of a short interview process, the results depended more on whether the decision-making process was EoS (end of sequence) or SbS (step by step). In simple and short interviews where the decision was withheld to the end of the process, primacy dominated. In short and complex interviews the most recent information presented by the applicant dominated when judged by the interviewer. In a short step-by-step decision making process the most recent information always outweighed the first pieces of information.

As a talent acquisition consultant, the results make perfect sense in my practice. In the larger scheme of things human beings are fairly predictable. When we are presented with a large amount of complex information quickly we don’t have time to make step-by-step evaluations and we reserve our decision to the end. In that case, the most recent information seems to be the best, and a bias effect occurs toward the most recent interviews in judgment and possibly the most recent candidates interviewed. When the process takes a long time, we become mentally tired and we simply rely on our first impressions of a given candidate and tend to choose the applicants we interviewed earlier in the process. In the case of a simple and quick interview process, we simply judge quickly, and primacy dominates.

The recruiting leader then needs to implement a system and process to mitigate these effects if they wish to hire effectively and to help their hiring managers judge both accurately and precisely. I’ll talk more about that in the Journal.

Joe Shaheen is a leading Washington, D.C., management consultant with over a decade experience in solving tough business issues with a focus on people’s challenges. He has been featured on CNN Headline News, Fox News Channel, and the Fox Business Network as an HR expert as well as numerous other media outlets. Shaheen is a former process engineer who became a recruiter, and transitioned into HR consulting some years after he earned his bachelor’s degree in Physics at 19 years of age. He earned a master’s in HR management from Georgetown and an MBA from Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. He blogs at Http://, tweets at, and you can find his services at


7 Comments on “The Recency and Primacy Effects in the Talent Acquisition Process

  1. While Recency and Primacy are no doubt real, so is Confirmation bias and that may occur before a person walks into the room (from a name, or a resume fact, or referral source, or any number of reasons).

    You also can’t discount personal physical attractivness, class cues, and Affiliation bias as they can all easily overwhelm any Recency or Primacy effects.

    When we pitch software, we don’t want to go first or last- we want to be second or third from last if possible, or first with a long interval before the next pitch. We never want to pitch last.

  2. Martin,

    you are correct in that there are other bias effects that can take place in the TA process. However, the article was as attempt to highliht some of the lesser known biases that can be in effect in the recruiting process. Feel free to read the full article in the Journal. You can contact me directly through twitter if you like for a more in depth discussion.


  3. Thank you, Joe. Very relevant and interesting.
    I believe that the forthcoming field of Behavioral Recruiting (which combines the analysis of Behavioral Economics with Recruiting) will expand and elaborate this.
    (I look forward to your article.)
    If I understand the concept properly, they can not typically be eliminated, but can be acknolwledged and accounted for.

    Here is a list of cognitive Biases from Wikipedia.

    A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgement that occurs in particular situations (see also cognitive distortion and the lists of thinking-related topics). Implicit in the concept of a “pattern of deviation” is a standard of comparison; this may be the judgment of people outside those particular situations, or may be a set of independently verifiable facts. The existence of some of these cognitive biases has been verified empirically in the field of psychology.

    Cognitive biases are instances of evolved mental behavior. Some are presumably adaptive, for example, because they lead to more effective actions or enable faster decisions. Others presumably result from a lack of appropriate mental mechanisms, or from the misapplication of a mechanism that is adaptive under different circumstances.

    Contents [hide]
    1 Decision-making and behavioral biases
    2 Biases in probability and belief
    3 Social biases
    4 Memory errors
    5 Common theoretical causes of some cognitive biases
    6 See also
    7 Notes
    8 References

    [edit] Decision-making and behavioral biases
    It has been suggested that Buyer decision processes#Cognitive and personal biases in decision making be merged into this article or section. (Discuss)

    Many of these biases are studied for how they affect belief formation, business decisions, and scientific research.

    Bandwagon effect – the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same. Related to groupthink and herd behaviour.
    Base rate fallacy – ignoring available statistical data in favor of particulars.
    Bias blind spot – the tendency not to compensate for one’s own cognitive biases.[1]
    Choice-supportive bias – the tendency to remember one’s choices as better than they actually were.
    Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
    Congruence bias – the tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing, in contrast to tests of possible alternative hypotheses.
    Contrast effect – the enhancement or diminishing of a weight or other measurement when compared with a recently observed contrasting object.
    Déformation professionnelle – the tendency to look at things according to the conventions of one’s own profession, forgetting any broader point of view.
    Denomination effect – the tendency to spend more money when it is denominated in small amounts (e.g. coins) rather than large amounts (e.g. bills).[2]
    Distinction bias – the tendency to view two options as more dissimilar when evaluating them simultaneously than when evaluating them separately.[3]
    Endowment effect – “the fact that people often demand much more to give up an object than they would be willing to pay to acquire it”.[4]
    Experimenter’s or Expectation bias – the tendency for experimenters to believe, certify, and publish data that agree with their expectations for the outcome of an experiment, and to disbelieve, discard, or downgrade the corresponding weightings for data that appear to conflict with those expectations.[5]
    Extraordinarity bias – the tendency to value an object more than others in the same category as a result of an extraordinarity of that object that does not, in itself, change the value.[citation needed]
    Focusing effect – prediction bias occurring when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event; causes error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome.
    Framing – Using an approach or description of the situation or issue that is too narrow. Also framing effect – drawing different conclusions based on how data is presented.
    Hyperbolic discounting – the tendency for people to have a stronger preference for more immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs, where the tendency increases the closer to the present both payoffs are.
    Illusion of control – the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes that they clearly cannot.
    Impact bias – the tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of the impact of future feeling states.
    Information bias – the tendency to seek information even when it cannot affect action.
    Interloper effect – the tendency to value third party consultation as objective, confirming, and without motive. Also consultation paradox, the conclusion that solutions proposed by existing personnel within an organization are less likely to receive support than from those recruited for that purpose.
    Irrational escalation – the tendency to make irrational decisions based upon rational decisions in the past or to justify actions already taken.
    Just-world phenomenon – witnesses of an “inexplicable injustice . . . will rationalize it by searching for things that the victim might have done to deserve it”
    Loss aversion – “the disutility of giving up an object is greater than the utility associated with acquiring it”.[6] (see also sunk cost effects and Endowment effect).
    Mere exposure effect – the tendency for people to express undue liking for things merely because they are familiar with them.
    Money illusion – the tendency of people to concentrate on the nominal (face value) of money rather than its value in terms of purchasing power.
    Moral credential effect – the tendency of a track record of non-prejudice to increase subsequent prejudice.
    Need for Closure – the need to reach a verdict in important matters; to have an answer and to escape the feeling of doubt and uncertainty. The personal context (time or social pressure) might increase this bias.[7]
    Negativity bias – phenomenon by which humans pay more attention to and give more weight to negative than positive experiences or other kinds of information.
    Neglect of probability – the tendency to completely disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty.
    Normalcy bias – the refusal to plan for, or react to, a disaster which has never happened before.
    Not Invented Here – the tendency to ignore that a product or solution already exists, because its source is seen as an “enemy” or as “inferior”.
    Omission bias – the tendency to judge harmful actions as worse, or less moral, than equally harmful omissions (inactions).
    Outcome bias – the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.
    Planning fallacy – the tendency to underestimate task-completion times.
    Post-purchase rationalization – the tendency to persuade oneself through rational argument that a purchase was a good value.
    Pseudocertainty effect – the tendency to make risk-averse choices if the expected outcome is positive, but make risk-seeking choices to avoid negative outcomes.
    Reactance – the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice.
    Restraint bias – the tendency to overestimate one’s ability to show restraint in the face of temptation.
    Selective perception – the tendency for expectations to affect perception.
    Semmelweis reflex – the tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts an established paradigm.[8]
    Status quo bias – the tendency for people to like things to stay relatively the same (see also loss aversion, endowment effect, and system justification).[9]
    Von Restorff effect – the tendency for an item that “stands out like a sore thumb” to be more likely to be remembered than other items.
    Wishful thinking – the formation of beliefs and the making of decisions according to what is pleasing to imagine instead of by appeal to evidence or rationality.
    Zero-risk bias – preference for reducing a small risk to zero over a greater reduction in a larger risk.
    [edit] Biases in probability and belief
    Many of these biases are often studied for how they affect business and economic decisions and how they affect experimental research.

    Ambiguity effect – the avoidance of options for which missing information makes the probability seem “unknown”.
    Anchoring effect – the tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on a past reference or on one trait or piece of information when making decisions (also called “insufficient adjustment”).
    Attentional bias – neglect of relevant data when making judgments of a correlation or association.
    Authority bias – the tendency to value an ambiguous stimulus (e.g., an art performance) according to the opinion of someone who is seen as an authority on the topic.
    Availability heuristic – estimating what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples.
    Availability cascade – a self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse (or “repeat something long enough and it will become true”).
    Belief bias – an effect where someone’s evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by the believability of the conclusion.
    Clustering illusion – the tendency to see patterns where actually none exist.
    Capability bias – The tendency to believe that the closer average performance is to a target, the tighter the distribution of the data set.
    Conjunction fallacy – the tendency to assume that specific conditions are more probable than general ones.
    Disposition effect – the tendency to sell assets that have increased in value but hold assets that have decreased in value.
    Gambler’s fallacy – the tendency to think that future probabilities are altered by past events, when in reality they are unchanged. Results from an erroneous conceptualization of the Law of large numbers. For example, “I’ve flipped heads with this coin five times consecutively, so the chance of tails coming out on the sixth flip is much greater than heads.”
    Hawthorne effect – the tendency of people to perform or perceive differently when they know that they are being observed.
    Hindsight bias – sometimes called the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect, the inclination to see past events as being predictable.
    Illusory correlation – beliefs that inaccurately suppose a relationship between a certain type of action and an effect.[10]
    Last illusion — the belief that someone must know what is going on. Coined by Brian Eno.
    Ludic fallacy – the analysis of chance-related problems according to the belief that the unstructured randomness found in life resembles the structured randomness found in games, ignoring the non-gaussian distribution of many real-world results.
    Neglect of prior base rates effect – the tendency to neglect known odds when reevaluating odds in light of weak evidence.
    Observer-expectancy effect – when a researcher expects a given result and therefore unconsciously manipulates an experiment or misinterprets data in order to find it (see also subject-expectancy effect).
    Optimism bias – the systematic tendency to be over-optimistic about the outcome of planned actions.
    Ostrich effect – ignoring an obvious (negative) situation.
    Overconfidence effect – excessive confidence in one’s own answers to questions. For example, for certain types of question, answers that people rate as “99% certain” turn out to be wrong 40% of the time.
    Positive outcome bias – a tendency in prediction to overestimate the probability of good things happening to them (see also wishful thinking, optimism bias, and valence effect).
    Pareidolia – a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) is perceived as significant, e.g., seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse.
    Primacy effect – the tendency to weigh initial events more than subsequent events.
    Recency effect – the tendency to weigh recent events more than earlier events (see also peak-end rule).
    Disregard of regression toward the mean – the tendency to expect extreme performance to continue.
    Selection bias – a distortion of evidence or data that arises from the way that the data are collected.
    Stereotyping – expecting a member of a group to have certain characteristics without having actual information about that individual.
    Subadditivity effect – the tendency to judge probability of the whole to be less than the probabilities of the parts.
    Subjective validation – perception that something is true if a subject’s belief demands it to be true. Also assigns perceived connections between coincidences.
    Survivorship bias – concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process and ignoring those that didn’t, or arguing that a strategy is effective given the winners, while ignoring the large amount of losers.
    Telescoping effect – the effect that recent events appear to have occurred more remotely and remote events appear to have occurred more recently.
    Texas sharpshooter fallacy – the fallacy of selecting or adjusting a hypothesis after the data is collected, making it impossible to test the hypothesis fairly. Refers to the concept of firing shots at a barn door, drawing a circle around the best group, and declaring that to be the target.
    Well travelled road effect – underestimation of the duration taken to traverse oft-traveled routes and over-estimate the duration taken to traverse less familiar routes.
    [edit] Social biases
    Most of these biases are labeled as attributional biases.

    Actor-observer bias – the tendency for explanations of other individuals’ behaviors to overemphasize the influence of their personality and underemphasize the influence of their situation (see also fundamental attribution error). However, this is coupled with the opposite tendency for the self in that explanations for our own behaviors overemphasize the influence of our situation and underemphasize the influence of our own personality.
    Egocentric bias – occurs when people claim more responsibility for themselves for the results of a joint action than an outside observer would.
    Forer effect (aka Barnum Effect) – the tendency to give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. For example, horoscopes.
    False consensus effect – the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.
    Fundamental attribution error – the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior (see also actor-observer bias, group attribution error, positivity effect, and negativity effect).
    Halo effect – the tendency for a person’s positive or negative traits to “spill over” from one area of their personality to another in others’ perceptions of them (see also physical attractiveness stereotype).
    Herd instinct – Common tendency to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviors of the majority to feel safer and to avoid conflict.
    Illusion of asymmetric insight – people perceive their knowledge of their peers to surpass their peers’ knowledge of them.
    Illusion of transparency – people overestimate others’ ability to know them, and they also overestimate their ability to know others.
    Illusory superiority – overestimating one’s desirable qualities, and underestimating undesirable qualities, relative to other people. Also known as Superiority bias (also known as “Lake Wobegon effect”, “better-than-average effect”, “superiority bias”, or Dunning-Kruger effect).
    Ingroup bias – the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others they perceive to be members of their own groups.
    Just-world phenomenon – the tendency for people to believe that the world is just and therefore people “get what they deserve.”
    Notational bias – a form of cultural bias in which the notational conventions of recording data biases the appearance of that data toward (or away from) the system upon which the notational schema is based.
    Outgroup homogeneity bias – individuals see members of their own group as being relatively more varied than members of other groups.
    Projection bias – the tendency to unconsciously assume that others share the same or similar thoughts, beliefs, values, or positions.
    Self-serving bias (also called “behavioral confirmation effect”) – the tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests (see also group-serving bias).
    Self-fulfilling prophecy – the tendency to engage in behaviors that elicit results which will (consciously or not) confirm existing attitudes.[11]
    System justification – the tendency to defend and bolster the status quo. Existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be preferred, and alternatives disparaged sometimes even at the expense of individual and collective self-interest. (See also status quo bias.)
    Trait ascription bias – the tendency for people to view themselves as relatively variable in terms of personality, behavior and mood while viewing others as much more predictable.
    Ultimate attribution error – Similar to the fundamental attribution error, in this error a person is likely to make an internal attribution to an entire group instead of the individuals within the group.
    [edit] Memory errors
    Further information: Memory bias
    Consistency bias – incorrectly remembering one’s past attitudes and behaviour as resembling present attitudes and behaviour.
    Cryptomnesia – a form of misattribution where a memory is mistaken for imagination.
    Egocentric bias – recalling the past in a self-serving manner, e.g. remembering one’s exam grades as being better than they were, or remembering a caught fish as being bigger than it was
    False memory – confusion of imagination with memory, or the confusion of true memories with false memories.
    Hindsight bias – filtering memory of past events through present knowledge, so that those events look more predictable than they actually were; also known as the ‘I-knew-it-all-along effect’.
    Reminiscence bump – the effect that people tend to recall more personal events from adolescence and early adulthood than from other lifetime periods.
    Rosy retrospection – the tendency to rate past events more positively than they had actually rated them when the event occurred.
    Self-serving bias – perceiving oneself responsible for desirable outcomes but not responsible for undesirable ones.
    Suggestibility – a form of misattribution where ideas suggested by a questioner are mistaken for memory.
    [edit] Common theoretical causes of some cognitive biases
    Attribute substitution – making a complex, difficult judgement by unconsciously substituting an easier judgement[12]
    Attribution theory, especially:
    Cognitive dissonance, and related:
    Impression management
    Self-perception theory
    Heuristics, including:
    Availability heuristic – estimating what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples[10]
    Representativeness heuristic – judging probabilities on the basis of resemblance[10]
    Affect heuristic – basing a decision on an emotional reaction rather than a calculation of risks and benefits [13]
    Adaptive bias
    Misinterpretations or misuse of statistics.

  4. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for the comment and the useful resources. There’s a lot of biases as all can see. Behavioral recruiting is growing and as Talent Acquisition becomes more strategic you’ll see more scholars taking on these types of issues.

    Now in terms of being able to eliminate the effect -you are accurate. Unless you plan on controlling the cognitive abilities of every person judging a candidate you wont be able to eliminate it. However, in the article I do propose some methods to mitigate the effects, based on the research and my own experience. I’d be glad to discuss them further with you.



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