Bias Eraser #8: Primacy & Recency Effects

Will Rogers is famous for saying, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  Talent gurus have written hundreds of articles emphasizing this sentiment to help job seekers nail that next opportunity.  All serious sales job candidates heed similar guidance.  The wisdom on leaving the right impression doesn’t stop there.  Many experts and well-known career websites provide in-depth guidance on “how to leave a lasting impression,” and others suggest “your last impression is as important as your first impression.”

Let’s face it. The big conclusion is that impressions matter a whole lot in the sales hiring process. It seems that what matters most is what we do first and what we do last. But what about all that “stuff” sales candidates do in the middle? The extensive interviewing, question answering, and conversations that take place between the beginning and the end of the process? Is that all meaningless? Unfortunately, the experts are right, but not for the reasons you might think. They are providing sage advice to help harness two well-known and related cognitive biases… The Primacy Effect and the Recency Effect.

The Primacy Effect: A Type of Bias

The Primacy Effect is our tendency to remember the first pieces of information better than information we hear later. So first impressions matter, because our brains are biased to recall initial interactions rather than information that comes later in the process. This can be good or bad news depending on what that first interaction is like.

Examples of the Primacy Effect

If a sales candidate starts an interview with a joke, you will likely remember their humor more than the job-related information you are seeking. Another Primacy Bias example is when a well-qualified candidate shows up late or makes a typo on a resume, and one mistake seems salient as a reason to disqualify them despite all other signs pointing to potential excellence.

The Primacy Effect also yields unwanted bias when interview order affects our judgment of talent. For example, when we interview several sales candidates on the same day, the Primacy Effect makes the first candidate more memorable. For this reason, they will likely be the standard by which all other candidates are evaluated. This means that much better-qualified candidates may not receive a fair evaluation, just because they are interviewing later. In the immortal words of Ricky Bobby (of Talladega Nights fame), “if you ain’t first, you are last.”

The Definition of Recency Bias

Whereas the Primacy Effect is about the information that came first, the Recency Effect is a bias towards the information we see last. It probably comes as no surprise that we tend to remember information and events that we experienced most recently. As it turns out, it is important to leave a lasting impression, even though it shouldn’t be.

Recency Bias In Action: Examples

Similar to Primacy Effect examples, you are likely to remember the last interaction better than others when interviewing sales candidates. At decision-making time, it is easy to make a biased decision based on what is easier to remember.

Perhaps one candidate closed on a high note, overshadowing signals related to job performance potential. Conversely, if a sales candidate misspeaks, tells a bad joke, or decides to get serious about compensation requirements, that last interaction could lead the talent decision-making astray.

Let’s not forget the misfortune of being candidate 3 out of 5 to interview on the same day. Due to Recency Bias, they may have to shine very bright to be fairly evaluated against that memorable but potentially less qualified final candidate.

The Problems of Bias from the Primacy Effect and Recency Effect

The Primacy and Recency Effects are cognitive biases that thwart high-quality decisions and damage organizations’ capacities to fulfill diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives. In concert, they lead to decisions that have little to do with future job success.

Being the first or last candidate shouldn’t impact one’s ability to get a job, but it does. Despite what Primacy Bias and Recency Bias tell us, all of the job-related information in the middle predicts job performance better than first and last impressions.

How to Avoid Recency Effect and Primacy Effect

There is nothing wrong with making a strong first and last impression. But as hiring professionals, we need to avoid biases like the Recency Effect and the Primacy Effect and base decisions on objective, job-related information.

  1. Base the first impression on objective data. If the first thing you know and recall about a candidate is that they have a high potential to be successful in the job, then this is a data point worth remembering.
    At PerceptionPredict, we build highly predictive models of future job performance designed to provide an estimate of sales performance before a candidate is hired. If the results suggest that a job seeker is likely to attain 200% of quota, this is a bias-free first impression with a worthy place in talent decision-making.
    While it is not possible to completely avoid Primacy and Recency effects, objective talent assessment data will help level the playing field by providing bias-free data to counterbalance interview order. If that first candidate was the gold standard and the final one ended on a high note, objective data can verify or contradict those biased impressions.

  2. Remove the first and last impressions from the interview process by implementing a structured interview system. Structured interview processes provide all candidates with the same job-relevant questions and a standard scoring methodology.
    This helps interviewers consistently and objectively rate interview responses. They can judge sales candidates on how they respond to every question, and not just the first or last ones. Further, in structured interviews, raters are expected to score responses immediately, eliminating any need to remember the quality or substance of a candidate’s response later.
    Ideally, a candidate’s scores should not be impacted by Primacy or Recency Bias. Because all candidates are interviewed and scored the same, there is much less benefit to being the first or last to go.

  3. Avoid reviewing resumes or cover letters until later in the process. These documents typically represent the very first piece of information we ever see on a candidate, yet they are not particularly useful for predicting future job performance.
    A resume can inform about skills and experience, and a cover letter can shed some additional light on who a candidate is, but both of these are tools that take advantage of the Primacy Effect. Language choice, content, or design may all leave a lasting memory that has little to do with potential success in the job. In particular, the resume is chock full of potentially biasing information about gender, age, ethnicity/race, or socioeconomic status.
    That information unnecessarily biases our talent decision-making, because it sticks out as something we remember about the candidate consciously or not. Instead, use the resume towards the middle or end of the sales hiring process where initial impressions based on objective data have already eliminated some potential for bias.

The Primacy Effect and the Recency Effect are powerful human biases that can do great harm to salesforce quality and diversity. Luckily, there are tried and true methods for erasing their effects, and investing in them is a small cost for the value they return. 

These insights have us thinking about new ways to optimize the hiring process. We hope they have you thinking as well. Book a demo now to learn more about Perception Predict, and start honing in on the optimal sales candidates to propel your organizations’ success.

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