Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Primacy


Primacy: When meeting someone for the first time, multiple biases are in play. The qualities and behaviours you observe first will have a stronger effect on your overall opinion of a person than things you learn later. This is thanks to a principle called primacy. It’s because of primacy that first impressions are so powerful. It takes a lot of evidence to the contrary to break your first impression. This is why grooming, clothing, body language and tone of voice are very important.

We should take care to keep this in mind when meeting people for the first time. Make a conscious effort to understand that their first impression reflects purely on their state on that particular day. Believing someone to be an angry person based on a first impression could lead to you wrongly attributing an action to or placing blame on that person.

The primacy bias also affects us when we read. Daniel Kahneman created two people where he assigned six qualities in a written list, three good qualities and three bad qualities. The qualities assigned to the two people were exactly the same, excepted the order that they were listed in was different. The first had the three good qualities listed first, followed by the three negative. The second had the opposite. People were more likely to have a positive opinion of the first person than the second, though they were essentially the same person.

We kind of filter the latter qualities based on the first few we see. Bare this in mind when listening to people talk about others – when hiring new employees for example. If they mention a person’s positive qualities first, you’re more likely to have a favourable opinion of them, even if they’re not the best person for the job.

With this in mind, you’ll often come up against another bias, which is the Halo effect.

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