Primacy Effect in Attribution

Primacy Effect in Attribution Definition

The primacy effect concerns how one’s impressions of others are formed. Thus, it relates to the field of psychology known as person perception, which studies how people form impressions of others. The word primacy itself is generally defined in the dictionary as the state of being first in order or importance. In a similar manner, according to the primacy principle, when generating impressions of others, what we think and feel about a person is strongly influenced by our very first impressions of that person. Therefore, when one is making judgments of others, first impressions are more important than later impressions. It seems that first impressions tend to color or bias later judgments of a person. They do this in a way that is consistent with those initial assessments. Thus what someone first sees, hears, or reads about a person tends to serve as a primary reference point or anchor for later judgments, so that later judgments are overly influenced by a person’s initial judgment. In essence, first impressions count.

Primacy Effect in Attribution Background and History

Primacy Effect in AttributionSince the early 20th century, psychologists have been concerned with how the impressions we make of others are formed. Early on, psychologists tried to see if there were any stable patterns regarding how people formed these impressions. However, the primacy principal was not established by scientific study until the 1940s. Solomon Asch is credited with discovering the primacy principal. His early experiments were quite simple: People were read a list of words that one might use to describe a person. Sometimes these lists were long, sometimes they were short, and most importantly, where each word appeared the list appeared was varied. Sometimes a certain word appeared in the beginning, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes at the end. After they heard a particular list, participants in the study were then asked to give their impressions of what a person who fit the description that they had just heard might be like. What Asch’s early studies found was that the order in which people heard the words mattered greatly. It seemed that people used these lists to form an overall unified impression of a person, and the words that people heard first set the tone for everything else a person heard. So, a list of words like intelligent, industrious, impulsive, and critical tended to result in positive ratings when compared with the same list in reverse order, that is, critical, impulsive, industrious, and intelligent. In effect, the early words dominated the impression that people formed.

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Summary of Types, Amount, and Quality of Evidence

Asch’s early work inspired a large number of studies that supported the primacy effect in person perception. In addition to overall impressions, it was also discovered that the primacy effect also affects specific judgments about others. These judgments include how generally intelligent and successful we perceive others to be and how well we expect them to perform in the future. Assuming that the number of successes and failures are equal, one might think that whether a person experiences success early or late shouldn’t matter when we judge them, but it does. Perceptions of intelligence along with future expectations of success depend on the pattern of a person’s successes and failures. When comparing people who have early success and then get worse to those who start poorly and then get better, or have a mixed pattern of success and failure, people rate those with the early success higher. Thus, it is better to start strong and finish weak, than to start weak and finish strong or have a random pattern of successes and failures. Everything else being equal, those who have early successes and then descend in performance are judged to be both smarter and more likely to perform better than others.

Physical attractiveness can be part of the primacy effect. When rating others, it has been shown that physically attractive people tend to receive generally high ratings regardless of how they perform on a series of tasks. Those who were physically unattractive, however, tended to be rated lower even when their performance was the same as that of the attractive people. Consistent with the primacy effect, this only occurred if people knew what the person looked like before they judged his or her performance. However, if a person’s performance was judged without knowing how he or she looked, finding out how the person looked later didn’t change the ratings. Being good looking is a generally positive attribute, but it only seems to affect judgments if people know about it before initial judgments are made. Like the word studies discussed earlier, if a judgment of attractiveness is the first thing in a chain of judgments, it tends to color subsequent judgments in a manner consistent with the general goodness that people associate with physical attractiveness.

Importance of Primacy Effect in Attribution

Besides beginning a whole new field of inquiry in psychology, the primacy effect has broader implications.

The effect is important because the first thing that we do when we are making a judgment of another person is to categorize him or her, and because of the primacy effect, the category that we first put people into tends to influence our subsequent judgments about that person. When we encounter people, the process of categorization starts with the most noticeable categories of that person such as sex, race, social class, or age. We then use this category to make initial assumptions about the person, and because these initial assumptions affect our later judgments, they are the most important assumptions one makes.

Implications of Primacy Effect in Attribution

Because of the primacy effect, the judgments others make about a person may not be accurate, and this inaccuracy is likely to persist over time. People may be judged by who they first appear to be, rather than by who they actually are. If first judgments are positive, this could give someone an undeserved advantage; if negative, it could put someone at an unfair disadvantage.


  1. Asch, S. E. (1946). Forming impressions of personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1, 1956-1972.
  2. Jones, E. E. (1968). Pattern of performance and ability attribution: An unexpected primacy effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 317-340.