A new study finds that people prefer the options that come first, whether it’s the first college to offer an acceptance letter or the first salad on the menu.
In three experiments, when making quick choices, participants consistently preferred people or products presented first as opposed to similar offerings in second and sequential positions.
“The order of individuals performing on talent shows like ‘American Idol,’ the order of potential companies recommended by a stockbroker, the order of college acceptance letters received by an applicant — all of these firsts have privileged status,” said Dana Carney, Ph.D., assistant professor of management at the University of California.
The study found that, especially in circumstances when decisions must be made quickly or without much deliberation, preferences are unconsciously and immediately guided to those options presented first.
While there are sometimes rational reasons to prefer firsts, such as the first resume is on the top of the pile because that person wanted the job the most, Carney says the “first is best” effect suggests that firsts are preferred even when completely unwarranted and irrational.
The study’s first experiment asked 123 participants to evaluate three groups: (1) two teams, (2) two male salespeople, and (3) two female salespeople. Participants were first asked to join one of the two teams and were introduced to people on the teams. Immediately following the introductions, they decided which team to join.
Next, participants were told they were buying a car and introduced to two male salesmen: Jim and Jon. Immediately following the introduction, they selected the salesman they would prefer to buy a car from.
Finally, participants were told they needed to re-make their car-buying decision and they were introduced to two new salespeople, Lisa and Lori. After introductions they, again, decided which person they’d like to buy a car from.
When asking participants about their choices, the researchers asked in two ways. First was conscious/deliberate choice, which was self-reported (“I prefer Lisa to Lori”), or they completed a reaction-time task adapted from cognitive psychology in which participants’ automatic, unconscious preference for each option was assessed (i.e., “good,” “better,” “superior”).
Regardless of whom people said they preferred, on the unconscious, cognitive measure of preference, participants always preferred the first team or person to whom they were introduced.
To test the choice preferences of consumer goods, the researchers asked 207 passengers at a train station to select one of two pieces of bubble gum in a “rapid decision task” — or choosing within a second of seeing the choices. Once again, the result was the same: When thinking fast, the bubble gum presented first was the preferable choice in most cases, the researchers report.
Researchers considered the salespeople and the gum relatively positive stimuli, without controversy. In order to test their theory with negatively charged options, Carney and Banaji asked another group of 31 participants to choose between pairs of convicted criminals and decide which one was more worthy of parole.
After viewing mug shots of two 29-year-old criminals known to have committed the same violent crimes with similar features and facial expressions, again, when “thinking fast,” participants judged the first criminal presented as more worthy of parole.
Why does order matter? Carney says the “primacy has power” theory may provide the best answers.
“A preference for firsts has its origins in an evolutionary adaptation favoring firsts,” she said in the paper. For example, in most cases, humans tend to innately prefer the first people they meet: Their mother and other family members. In addition, those preferences are associated with what’s safe, she said, noting that the historic concept of the established “pecking order” also supports their findings that people find “first is best.”
The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE with co-author Mahzarin R. Banaji, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University.