Should you meet with that prospective client first or last?
Many of us are familiar with the recency effect (which would say be the last meeting) and the primacy effect (which would say don’t be last, be first). This body of research is also sometimes referred to as the “serial position effect” (which basically says, whatever you do, don’t get lost in the middle). Much of the research on these ordering issues is from before the turn of the last century.
[Perhaps that wasn’t fair--it makes this body of research sound ancient. In truth, we do think twelve years old is ancient when it comes to social sciences research. Think of just how much has changed in the past decade. Thank goodness the publish or perish dictum still flourishes in academia!]
In litigation we see the power of being the first to pitch your case– the power of ‘going first’. This coveted position allows Plaintiff to frame the debate and prepare the battleground. The contrast we often see in mock trials is the large percentage (usually at least half) of the jurors who at least deny being persuaded by the uncontested Plaintiff case. These judicious citizens want to wait until they can appraise the other side of the dispute.
New research (in press at Psychological Science but on SSRN now) gives us an updated answer on which effect is stronger–the primacy effect or the recency effect. Researchers looked at ten years of MBA admissions decisions data–in total, 9,323 decisions [selected for file completeness from a larger sample of more than 14,000 decisions]. Apparently, when MBA applicants are interviewed, they are interviewed in randomly selected small groups (of three or four) each day. If decision-making is clear of primacy or recency effects–the success of a single applicant should not be dependent upon the other applicants who happen to be randomly selected to interview on the same day.
But, that is not how it goes. Rather than considering the entire sample of applicants, interviewers seem to make their decisions based on the sample they have observed in a single day. In other words, the luck of the draw. You aren’t judged in contrast to the larger applicant pool, but rather to the subset with whom you were randomly scheduled. Woe to the MBA applicant who draws the short straw of stellar opposition on interview day. The researchers refer to this unfortunate phenomenon as “narrow bracketing”. They offer this definition of the term:
”when people conduct a subset of judgments, they do not sufficiently consider the other subsets they have already made or will make in the future”
The researchers cite decision-making research that says we all assume small samples reflect the entire sample. This is simply wrong.
“For instance, an interviewer who expects to evaluate positively about 50% of applicants in a pool may be reluctant to evaluate positively many more or fewer than 50% of applicants on any given day. An applicant who happens to interview on a day when several others have already received a positive evaluation would, therefore, be at a disadvantage.”
In other words, this research says that it’s better to be seen first rather than last. The primacy effect wins out over the recency effect. This finding deviates from research supporting the recency effect (being seen last) and certainly is not Biblical.
Having participated in a number of “beauty contests” with potential client law firms and being confronted with information about which of our trial consultant colleagues have gone before us–we’re not sure about how seriously we take this finding. But there you have it. Research on how decisions are made that says “go first” when all interviews are done in the same day. At least if you want an MBA. If you are facing trial and have no control of whether you can go first or last, we’d say the debate remains open.
Simonsohn U., & Gino, F. (2012). Daily Horizons: Evidence of Narrow Bracketing in Judgment from 10 years of MBA-admission Interviews. Psychological Science