Have you ever dropped your favourite supplier based on the most recent experience you’ve had with them?
Or sold stock when it started dropping because you just couldn’t see it going back up?
It may sound like those are justified decisions… or it could just be Recency Bias at play, and you should take a breather before making a decision you may regret later.
What is Recency Bias?
Recency bias is a tendency to place too much value on the most recent experiences and events, i.e., those that are freshest in our memory.
For example, having recently experienced bad luck you believe that the bad luck will continue into the future. (Note: this is similar to, but not the same as Availability Bias, which is the tendency to place too much value on the information that is easiest to recall and retrieve.)
Our memory is to blame. Partly because the most recent information is stored in our short-term memory, which is retrieved easier than the information that is stored in our long-term memory. This also makes the recent events feel more pressing and/or relevant, which in turn makes it very easy for us to believe that recent events will determine future trends. It also means we are more likely to judge an experience by what happened last.
So, for example, in companies where annual performance reviews are prevalent, managers will tend to give more importance to the last few months of work done by an employee, rather than their performance over the entire year. One, because it is easier to recall the most recent events, and two because it is likely we are still emotionally attached to the more recent events, be it a positive one, such as a recent customer success story or sale, or a more negative one, such as a mistake that cost us money or reputation.
I experienced this first hand a few months ago when I took my parents out to dinner at my husband and my favourite spot.
Unlike all the previous times, the food took longer to arrive, one of the meals, in particular, was brought to the table quite late which meant all our food got cold as we waited for everyone to be served before eating.
The entire experience left a sour taste in my mouth (pun very much intended). So, when it came to choosing a restaurant to take some friends to a few weeks later, my husband was surprised that our favourite restaurant didn’t make my suggestion list.
I explained what a horrible experience I had there with my parents (Recency Bias in action here) but he reasoned with me that I couldn’t just disregard the years of good service we had there. And he wasn’t wrong.
Which brings me to my next point… how do we combat Recency Bias?
Overcoming Recency Bias
As with other biases, it is important to think logically about the situation you are in, as opposed to emotionally, and to evaluate risks and opportunities in an impartial way before making a decision.
So, to combat Recency Bias, try to find out trends over time, rather than focusing on the most recent experience or experienced event.
It’s also important to stop being impulsive. Try to wait a bit before reacting to a recent event… when it’s safe to do so. E.g., if there is a bushfire nearby and coming your way, it may be safest to evacuate instead of taking time to evaluate wind trends and the possibility of the fire getting to you.
Mirta is a Director of ViAGO Limited, a behavioral science enthusiast, and a mum to three boisterous boys.