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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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