What is the Recency Effect?
The recency effect is how recent information is more likely to influence our decisions than older information.
We act with this recency top of mind. It has always been a bias which holds sway over the choices we face. We are more likely to act with recent information than older information.
In the past, this was less of an issue.
Recency was tied to your local environment or your conversations you’d taken part in. Unsurprisingly, older information held more influence. Gained from reading—or practical experience, this information helped us make decisions. More people wrote in journals. With writing comes clarity of thought. Each of these added to the volume of intrinsic thoughts held, enabling a much higher quality decision.
Now, recency—along with speed, rules our choices.
- Speed means we have to decide quickly.
- Speed means we don’t tend to journal as much.
- Speed means we have less time to reflect on the past.
Throw in the increase in recent information we now have access to, and you have a perfect storm for this cognitive bias to do its damage.
What does Recency Bias do to My Decisions?
There are two different routes we can drive to get to our local town.
The popular way is seven miles, but due to the traffic, it takes twenty-four minutes to get to town. The other, a less popular route is quicker by a couple of minutes but is four miles further.
Time is most people's priority, so the less popular route wins.
That was until two months ago. A collision occurred on the quicker route, killing a young driver and injuring the other. Discussing what happened with our neighbour surfaced details of another accident—one where a doctor died after crashing into another vehicle on his way back to surgery.
Clearly, both of these were freak accidents. The road isn’t great with a bend that narrows and drops away suddenly. But now, my family don’t want us to use this road.
It’s dangerous, they say.
Two accidents within an unknown time frame have pushed them to this conclusion. It is the recency and the extreme outcomes that have led my family to say don’t go that way.
Conversely, recency bias is stopping them from seeing another problem. Dr Carl Sagan talked about how the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Here, the popular route could have more accidents, but less serious ones that don't make the news.
When we talk about incomplete information, this absence of evidence is a real problem. Blinded by more current information, we miss what we can't see.
Obviously, this isn’t an everyday decision. But it does capture how the recency of events pushes us to change our minds and miss vital information. Recency bias is within us to protect us against current threats. As with most of our cognitive biases, they served us well in the Middle Ages, but now less so.
I say in the title you need to fear recency bias.
The reason is a stark one. With every decision you make, recency bias will be there to influence your choice. Even when you’re fighting to act with rational logic, recent information holds great sway to blind you from the obvious.
The judgement my family made over which route to use is a powerful example of this. The prominence of the two deaths adds huge weight to the decision. It is the acceptance of this information to the exclusion of other information which is so damaging.
There is no weighing of probabilities. In fact, there is no consideration of any risks beyond the confirming evidence from the two deaths.
It is here we need to fear the recency effect.
Good decision-makers are often cited as rational, objective, and calm people. Even with a dose of rationality, it is hard to escape the recency effect. The overwhelming flood of recent information on social media hits all its users.
It is a trap we all need to escape, but how?
Awareness is crucial when it comes to making decisions. If you know what the recency effect is, then you can build frameworks to help you navigate when it isn’t helping you. It is obvious, but slowing down before deciding is so important. To give your rational mind a chance at counteracting your biases, you need time.
So, by questioning yourself and others. Or by working from first principles, or by looking for base rates relative to your situation, you can overcome the risk of recency bias. These are all frameworks to help you step away from recent information and act with some rationality.
Knowing why you should fear the recency effect is a good place to begin.
Photo by Abo Ngalonkuluon Unsplash