The ‘First is best’ effect

When making quick choices, we consistently prefer the first option presented to us as opposed to similar offerings in second and sequential positions

Trophy on a pedestal
If you had to choose quickly, which would you pick?

Have you noticed what guides your decisions when you have choose something in a hurry? Perhaps, you are too hurried to notice. But some researchers made it the subject of their study and have found that when compelled to making quick choices—about products, food, things and people—people unconsciously select the first in line. So if you had to quickly choose between 10 people to be included in your team, you would unconsciously choose the first in line, or pick up the first loaf of bread on the shelf and so on.

The paper, “First is Best,” recently published in PLoS ONE by Dana R. Carney, assistant professor of management, University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and co-author Mahzarin R. Banaji, professor of psychology, Harvard University.

In three experiments, when making quick choices, participants consistently preferred people[salespersons, teams, criminals on parole] or consumer goods 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,” says Carney.

The study found that especially in circumstances under which 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, e.g. the first resume is designated 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. Why?

The paper cites, “a preference for firsts has its origins in an evolutionary adaptation favoring firsts …” For example, in most cases, humans tend to innately prefer the first people they meet: a mother, family members. In addition, those preferences are associated with what’s safe. Carney says the historic concept of the established “pecking order” also supports their findings that people find “first is best.”



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