Cognitive Biases IV: The Recency Effect

bigbrainby Paul Lohnes, MBA, PMP
Published in the Project Post-Gazette, Issue 2014-02,  Project Post-Gazette

Having covered the two most prevalent cognitive biases that project managers (PM) and business analysts (BA) are susceptible to: the confirmation bias and the sunk cost bias given the particularly intensive and personal involvement surrounding most projects, the next cognitive bias that we have found at many of our remediation engagements (project whispering) is a particularly interesting form of what psychologists called the availability bias. This bias causes decision makers to weight the likelihood of an event occurring (this bias is often found in risk managers and risk owners) is proportional to the ease with which they can recall an example of it happening. Now, to throw a loop into this pesky little bias, the availability bias often combines with the confirmation bias so that we may even have ‘pet examples’ easily retrievable that confirm our deeply held concepts and beliefs! How is that for a double body slam to the mental operations?

For example, let us say that you have chosen to smoke 1-2 packs of cigarettes a day. Now do not get us wrong, this is a personal choice and if you do not harm anyone with second-hand smoke, or spend too many days out sick due to colds you catch from having to go outside 50 feet away the opening of any door or window at work (a common USA work rule these days), smoking is your choice. However, we have heard many smokers when asked why they continue to smoke in light of the growing research and bodies of evidence that it is somewhat a bit harmful, either bring up the longevity of a little old lady who has smoked for over 70 years they remember hearing about on the television recently (remember that word) or the particularly celebrated lifetime achievements of Mr. George Burns who lived to be almost 100 (98 to be exact) while smoking 5-6 Churchill-sized (not literally, but it is a category of large gauged cigars most attributed to Winston Churchill’s historic pose with one in his fingers) cigars and drinking tubs of martinis.

But, the bias that we are going to discuss is specific form of the availability bias, and researchers have given this closely related form of cognitive over-drawing as the recency effect or recency heuristic. Remember from our previous articles on cognitive biases that a heuristic is simply a mental shortcut that is used to assist with decision making in complex or stressful situations such a quick decision conditions or ‘life or death’ situations. Taking time to weigh all the factors, prioritize their importance, apply a consistent measurement of value requires time and effort which life does not always allow, and so we all develop shortcuts to assist us making such decisions under less optimum circumstances, and these shortcuts can and often due become victims of cognitive biasing.

There you now know the linkage between how we make decisions in life and the conditions surrounding these decisions forces most of us to use mental heuristics to prevent decision lockup – a condition where a person is simply so overwhelmed with data and/or information about a very intensive and usually personal situation that they cannot come to a decision. You have seen it played out over and over in movies, stories, and on the news. Using shortcuts to help make decisions is NOT a bad thing since we would not be able to function in normal society without such mental hijinks. Researchers say that when driving a motor vehicle, a driver will make between 200 and 500 decisions per mile! And most of those decisions are made subconsciously (assuming we have been driving for a couple of years) without our full attention.

The point we are moving towards is the recency effect impacts our decision making with quiet suitably since the effect is derived from how we process information. Hogarth and Einhorn in a 1992 article in Cognitive Psychology, “Order effect in belief updating: the belief adjustment mode,” discussed that we process information in a serial manner and therefore the impact of how we give priorities to information that is most recent is the basis for the recency effect. Please understand that we probably are not doing justice to these authors, but their research paper is quite elegant and very complex both mathematically and intuitively. However, the concept is that humans take in data and information in a serial format and tag it mostly with a temporally acquired association. Simply meaning that we place a bit of metadata on what we acquire during the day somewhat like date-time stamping a document, and then use that metadata as a retrieval tag to be able to retrieve the information for later use. This is all perpetrated on the concept that we allow the information past our sensory and short-term memories first in order to land in our longer-term memory where information of importance is archived.

Upon completion of our study of cognitive biases, we will delve into the reaches of human memory, learning, and how to improve both aspects as a PM or BA, but for now, the recency effect tends to give a higher weight to those pieces of information that are at the end of a chain of data or information opposed to the beginning. This is the simplification of the above researchers’ work, but we hope they will understand given our circumstances. There is much additional research to support this impact of recently acquired information listed in a very good management decision making article by Robert Rutledge, 1995.

What the symptoms of the recency effect, and how can a PM or BA mitigate their impact? These are the most important questions when dealing with a cognitive bias to which a decision maker might find themselves enslaved. So can we recognize the recency effect? Again, it will be easier to recognize it in others than in yourself. But the recency and its closely related cousin, the primacy effect (yes the difference, but not quite opposite), are very evident during such long, complex situations such as hiring of highly qualified or appearing so candidates for very technical or skilled positions, say like a PM or BA, hey? Application on point. So if you understand the recency effect then you can understand that candidates that come last in long string of interviews tend to be rated higher (no pure evidence, but many years of anecdotal experience on this one) than those that came much earlier. Young children are the best example of the recency effect – need we say more? Or the boss that tends to be swayed by the last cogent argument they heard, not a cognitive analysis of all of them. Finally there is the co-worker that gets an appetite for a meal choice based on the hearing of office discussions the closer and closer it approaches lunch time. All of these normal everyday situations show some impact of the Hogarth/Einhorn ordering of information model and the effect of more recent data on what is deemed important. The recency effect in reality.

How do we protect ourselves from giving too much weight to recent information and losing a true perspective of the entire data chain? The most beneficial suggestion is the maintenance of a project history or PM logbook. Like researchers who are known for keeping copious records in a ‘pen and ink’ physical journal, a PM or BA should do the same thing. However, remember that you will need to do two things to improve this logbook:

  1. Design a form of tagging symbols to help you find and retrieve relevant and related data,
  2. Review the logbook periodically to refresh your memory.

Also, setup and complete peer reviews on your projects and processes. There is nothing as powerful as a qualified yet external viewpoint to your actions and decisions. Listen to how the peer review critiques your decisions and then see if there is a link to more recent data in the prioritization of your information. Often you will see a pattern where your decisions are giving more weight to information that was acquired later in the decision process and not earlier (the primacy effect). See, we learned about two cognitive biases in this article.

Now, as we continue our study of mental processes that can impact our decision making, we are trusting that you will make use of such learning and be on the lookout for these biases both in yourself and in others. It is an interesting and enjoyable exercise that we do several times a week in that we choose a particular bias and then during the course of our day, we look for this bias to be exhibited in others and ourselves. Hmmm, a way to make work more palatable. So, let us see, today is Friday, so it must be ‘sunk cost day.’ Have a good month. We will continue next month with a discussion of the over-confidence bias: a very prominent and damaging mental convolution. See you in the next blog about Cognitive Biases.


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