Saturday, November 8, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Primacy and Recency Effect

The following essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.  Because I am publishing a book on this topic in 2015, posts will be significantly edited due to potential copyright conflicts.

November is World Vegan Month. To contribute to this month's activities, each day I will be presenting a social psychological concept or theory applied to abolitionist Nonhuman Animal rights. I began this series with a discussion of persuasion. Explorations into persuasion can be divided into research on the messenger, message, channel, and audience. Yesterday I discussed the use of two-sided appeals, which tend to improve credibility and increase persuasiveness.  Today I discuss primacy and recency effect.

Position vegan arguments first to tap into primacy effect and improve persuasiveness

Primacy effect means that persuasiveness is increased if the message is simply presented first (before competing messages).  Candidates listed first on the ballot have an advantage. In the courtroom, the testimony that goes first is most likely to be sided with.  Therefore, if vegan advocates are ever in a position to place their message before others, they would be wise to do so.  Placing vegan options at the top of a menu, for instance, might improve their popularity.  In his 2010 release with welfarist Robert Garner, The Animal Rights Debate:  Abolition or Regulation?, Francione cleverly presented the abolitionist argument first.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for occupying someone's recent memory.  The recency effect suggests that if a message is fresh in someone's mind (and a counterargument is too far in the past or otherwise too forgotten to compete) it will be more likely to persuade.

So, should advocates shoot for being first or being most recent?  In a series of experiments, researchers found that primacy effect tended to trump recency effect.  Another study on internet activity showed that participants were most likely to click top links, but they also might go for the most recently viewed link at the bottom of a list.  According to the researchers' suggestions, activists should benefit by lumping the most important information at the beginning, but they should also save another important piece for the end to trigger the short-term memory of the person receiving the message.  Vegan web developers would be wise to put their most important messages at the top and bottom of lists, vegan presenters should aim to speak first at events or conferences, and vegan food samples should be the first tasted at festivals or cook-offs.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Present your argument first for more credibility
  • Or, present your argument last to improve rememberance
  • Try to combine the two
  • Primacy effect is usually more powerful than recency effect


Asch, S.  1946.  "Forming Impressions of Personality."  Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 41:  258-290.

Carney, D. and M. Banaji.  2012.  "First is Best."  PLoS One 7 (6).

Miller, N. and D. Campbell. 1959.  "Recency and Primacy in Persuasion as a Function of the Timing of Speeches and Measurements."  Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 59:  1-9.

Murphy, J., C. Hofacker, and R. Mizerski.  2006.  "Primacy and Recency Effects on Clicking Behavior."  Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11 (2), article 7.

Stewart, D., B. Khan, and K. Moore.  2008.  "Ballot Order Effect."  Vermont Legislative Research Shop.