What Is Recency Bias? | Definition & Examples

Recency bias is the tendency to overemphasise the importance of recent experiences or the latest information we possess when estimating future events. Recency bias often misleads us to believe that recent events can give us an indication of how the future will unfold.

Example: Recency bias 
Recency bias can be observed in sports betting, as it leads to an over-dependence on recent outcomes. Bettors will follow a team on a winning streak or avoid a team on a losing streak, even though recent successes or failures don’t provide any insight into how things will play out in the future.

As a result, we ignore important information that can affect our judgement in various contexts, such as performance appraisals, financial decisions, or relationships.

What is recency bias?

Recency bias is a type of cognitive bias that causes us to assume that future events will resemble recent experiences. In other words, it causes us to think that, because certain events happened recently, they are likely to happen again soon.

Rather than take a wide-angle approach and consider the situation rationally, we ignore statistical probability and history and overemphasise the experiences that are fresh in our memory. This is a common fallacy, often spotted in sports: an athlete will be praised as the ‘best of all time’ due to their recent performance, even though other athletes in the past may have been better.

Recent events seem more important due to their immediacy, but the most recent experiences are not always the most relevant or reliable benchmarks for our decisions. Under the recency bias, we don’t realise this and may make hasty or emotional decisions.

Why does recency bias occur?

Recency bias occurs due to how our memory works: we are better at recalling items that are stored in our short-term memory, which can only hold a small amount of information at a time. Short-term memory stores the most recent information we’ve encountered, allowing us to access it easily during recall.

Recency bias is a version of what is also known as the availability heuristic: the tendency to base our thinking disproportionately on whatever comes most easily to mind, favouring recent information over less-current information. It is also related to the recency effect, which together with the primacy effect form the serial position effect.

Note
While the terms recency effect and recency bias are mostly used interchangeably, sometimes scientific articles make a slight distinction between the two. They may use recency bias to refer to how people make poor decisions due to over-reliance on recent observations and experiences, and they may used recency effect to refer to the context of learning, denoting how people best recall the last items in a sequence.

What is the difference between recency bias and primacy bias?

Recency bias and primacy bias are both part of a phenomenon called the serial position effect. Under this phenomenon, our ability to accurately recall an item in a series, such as a list of words, depends on its position.

More specifically, recency bias causes us to memorise and recall the last items on a list more easily, while primacy bias causes us to memorise and recall the first items we encounter.

The serial position effect shows why people tend to remember the first or last people they are introduced to during an event. It also implies that when we want to convey important information, we must place it strategically at either the beginning or at the end, avoiding the middle.

Recency bias examples

Recency bias causes us to believe that a short-term analysis allows us to correctly anticipate the future. This can be highly misleading when dealing with complex phenomena such as climate change.

Example: Recency bias vs historical data
You are discussing climate change with your colleagues. One of them mentions that in the last few years, you have experienced exceptionally cold summers in your area. Your colleague concludes that summers are actually getting colder and that there is no evidence that the temperature is rising.

This is recency bias at work: your colleague focuses on recent information at the expense of historical data. We need to take a far longer view, over thousands of years, to be able to draw any meaningful conclusions about climate trends.

Recency bias in the workplace may draw a manager’s attention to an employee’s recent performance, instead of long-term performance, as being more indicative of future performance.

Example: Recency bias in performance reviews 
Managers can fall for recency bias when reviewing an employee’s performance. Sometimes managers have the tendency to focus more on what the employee has achieved in the past one or two months, rather than their performance over the entire evaluation period. This can also lead to the halo or horn effect, depending on whether recent events paint the employee in a negative or positive light.

Managers can avoid this by collecting feedback on employees throughout the year and having one-on-one conversations with them at regular intervals. In this way, they can have a more comprehensive idea of employees’ achievements and areas of improvement.

Frequently asked questions

What is the opposite of recency bias?

Primacy bias is the opposite of recency bias. Under primacy bias, people tend to recall the first pieces of information they receive, rather than information encountered later. For example, we are more likely to remember the first few people we are introduced to at a networking event rather than anyone we talk to in the middle of the event.

Why is recency bias a problem?

Recency bias is a problem because it causes us to overestimate the importance of recent events, information, or experiences. Relatedly, it causes us to ignore more relevant information when estimating future outcomes, such as the statistical probability of something similar happening again or how often this happened in the past. As a result, our decisions are based on a short-term view, and therefore are misguided.

What is a real-life example of recency bias?

Recency bias can be observed in many real-life situations, such as sports. Because people tend to focus on how a team performed in the last few games, their expectations about the next game will be based on the team’s recent performance and not on how the team performed over an extended time period, e.g., over several seasons.

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, February 10). What Is Recency Bias? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 18 June 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/bias-in-research/the-recency-bias/

Sources

Durand, R. B., Patterson, F., & Shank, C. A. (2021). Behavioral Biases in the NFL Gambling Market: Overreaction to News and the Recency Bias. Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3861231

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.