Key Study: The Primacy and Recency Effects (Glanzer and Cunitz, 1966)

Travis Dixon Cognitive Psychology 11 Comments

The primacy and recency effect (the tendency to remember words at the beginning and ends of lists) is evidence in support of the MSM.

The following has been adapted from IB Psychology: A Student’s Guide

Evidence for MSM: Serial position effect (primacy and recency effects)

The serial position effect (aka primacy and recency effect) is a cognitive phenomenon whereby people tend to remember the first (primacy) and last (recency) items in a series. This provides evidence for the MSM: people tend to remember the first items because they have longer to rehearse the information and they may have paid more attention to it, so it has a higher probability of being transferred to the LTS. They tend to remember the most recent information because it is still in their STS. Information in the middle may be lost because of the limited capacity of the STS. This can be shown in Glanzer and Cunitz’s famous study.

The Primacy and Recency Effect (Glanzer and Cunitz, 1966)

A common method used to investigate memory is using free recall. This is when participants are exposed to a list of words (e.g. listening to a tape recording of words read out) and they are then asked to write down in any order (free) as many words as they can remember (recall). Using this method, researchers detected a pattern: participants can remember words better when they appear at the beginning of a list and at the end of a list. This has been dubbed the serial position effect (aka the primacy and recency effects).

Glanzer and Cunitz proposed that this was because the memories were coming from two different stores – the STS and the LTS. In order to demonstrate this, they conducted a series of experiments involving memory tests.

One of these experiments used 46 enlisted army men who were shown word monosyllabic words from the Thorndike-Lorge list on a screen using a projector. The experimenter read the words as they appeared also. The researchers used a repeated measures design by testing subjects individually and randomly assigning the word lists to one of the three conditions. The three conditions were:

  1. Immediate Free Recall Condition (IFR): wrote words down immediately after hearing them
  2. Delayed Free Recall Condition (DRF) – 10 seconds: wrote words down after a delay of 10 seconds.
  3. Delayed Free Recall Condition (DRF) – 30 seconds: wrote words down after a delay of 30 seconds.

Like Peterson and Peterson’s study, participants had a distraction task during the delay and had to count backwards in 3s to prevent further rehearsal.

The results showed that when there was no delay in recall (IFR) the primacy and recency effect was demonstrated as per usual. (Re-read above to see how this supports the MSM).

However, in the DFR-30 group only the primacy effect was present and the longer the delay, the more reduced was the recency effect (see graph below). This is further support for the MSM because it shows that the rehearsal has not changed the transfer to the LTS (because the primacy effect still exists), but the recency effect has gone because there was no time for rehearsal (because of the distraction task) and the 30 second delay was longer than the short-term stores capacity so the memories decayed (were lost).

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 9.49.04

You can see that as the delay increases, the recency effect disappears but the primacy effect remains. This provides further support for the MSM as it shows the duration of the STS is limited and that information rehearsed can be transferred to the LTS.


It’s interesting to note that these experiments were conducted before Atkinson and Shiffrin proposed the MSM, so these experiments may have inspired the theory, not the other way around.


Glanzer, Murray, and Anita R. Cunitz. “Two Storage Mechanisms in Free Recall.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 5.4 (1966): 351-60. Web. (Link to full study)

The Internal Assessment

This is a common study for students to conduct for their IB Psychology Internal Assessments. However, there are numerous pitfalls that you have to be careful of. If you are thinking of conducting this study for your IA, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Relevant Theory: The multi-store model of memory
  • Tip 1: Simplify the IV to two conditions to make the inferential statistics easier.
  • Tip 2: To conduct the inferential statistics, you will need two conditions (mean scores) to compare for one dependent variable. You should therefore focus on the primacy or the recency effect. Choose one (Note: one of them is much better than the other to choose because there are different results in each condition – see the graph above to make your decision).
  • Tip 3: You will need two average scores to compare. You will need to operationally define what the primacy or recency is in your experiment. For example, if you’re doing recency only, is this the last word in the sequence, the last two words, the last quarter, one third, etc. You could base your decision on the graph above.
  • Tip 4: If you decide against using this study for your IA, check out this blog post instead: Key Studies for the IA

Comments 11

  1. Great! This is exactly what I use to illustrate MSM. Sometimes, though, I include the Murdock study to introduce the Serial Position Effect.

  2. Pingback: 3 ways to improve your website with the serial position effect | Cacoo

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  3. hey i realised that you said the researchers used a repeated measures design for their participants, did you mean to say independent groups design?

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      Their first experiment used independent samples, but the experiment regarding delay/no delay was repeated measures: “The S was first shown three 5-word practice lists, and then fifteen 15-word lists. Each word was shown for 1 sec with a 2-sec interval between successi\’e words. The E read each word as it ap­peared. After the last word in each list, the symbol #, or a digit from 0 to 9 was shown. If the cross­hatch symbol appeared, E said “write,” and the S immediately started writing all the words he could recall in his test booklet. If a number appeared, the S started counting out loud from that number until E said “write.””

      1. Thank you for summarizing this (experiment #2) study here. I keep questioning my reading of the original study as it seems to have some variation to it depending on the text you read. Yours is very helpful. I do have one clarifying question: your comment just above says, “If a number appeared, the S started counting out loud from that number until E said ‘write.’” That is how I too interpreted the filler (or as they seem to say, the “minimal”) task. However, further above (in the procedure) you write, “Like Peterson and Peterson’s study, participants had a distraction task during the delay and had to count backwards in 3s to prevent further rehearsal.” That’s where I’m getting confused. Is it that participants count from the number shown from 0-9 for a 10s or 30s duration marked at the end by the command to “write”, or do they count backward to 3s? Some texts also include this backwards counting idea (but I can’t find that in the original study). Thanks in advance for taking the time to read this – and also many thanks for your resources. I need to purchase you IA book ASAP!

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