Is the First Spot Always Best in a Preference Test?

wine-tastingDoes someone interviewing for a job stand a better chance of getting the position if she’s first on the list of interviewees, last, or somewhere in-between?  Does someone running for public office stand a better chance of getting elected if he’s first on the ballot, last, or otherwise? 

These are questions of order in choice — and depending on who you’re asking, you’ll likely get a different answer about which spot in the picking order is more advantageous.  The issue is whether we can rely on a psychological standard for determining which slot in the order is typically favored by a chooser.  The flip side of this coin — what traits of the chooser play into which position he or she is most likely to favor? 

A new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated these questions using an especially tasty tool: wine.  Researchers wanted to know which wines in a given sequence would be favored by knowledgeable wine drinkers and vino sippers of average experience.  One hundred and forty-two people participated in the study, ages 19 to 75. 

Participants were told that they would taste locally produced wines and were randomly assigned to taste one sequence of two, three, four, or five samples.  Although participants expected to taste different samples of one grape varietal (e.g. Riesling), all of the samples consumed by a given participant actually consisted of the same wine. 

Participants were given a basic description of the wine-tasting procedure and direction on how to taste each wine.  Everyone had  approximately 25 seconds to sample each wine and 10 seconds between wines.  Participants drinking only two wines were given a total of 1 minute for tasting, and the interval increased all the way up to 2.5 minutes for those tasting five wines. 

At the end of each tasting sequence, each participant was asked, “Which ONE of ALL the wines that you have tasted today is you favorite?”  After the tasting was concluded, all participants completed a questionnaire to determine their level of knowledge and experience with various wines.  

The results:  the first wine was generally favored in all wine tasting sets (suggesting a ‘primacy effect’), and this applied to high and low-knowledge tasters.  High-knowledge tasters also tended to favor the most recent wine (‘recency effect’) when there were more than three wines in a set. 

So, across the board, there was a consistent “first-is-best” result, which suggests that participants were biased from the beginning to favor the first item in the set.  However, high-knowledge tasters broke ranks with this standard when they had several options to choose from.

The reason is that when faced with multiple options, high-knowledge users tend to compare the most recent item to the last one in the set.  If the most recent wine is their favorite, it will compare favorably to the last wine (in other words, the new favorite displaces the last favorite). 

In short — it’s usually better to be the first item in a set, unless (1) there are several options to choose from, and (2) the choosers are especially knowledgable about the items in question.  Putting that another way: first is usually best, except when it’s not.
Mantonakis, A., Rodero, P., Lesschaeve, I., & Hastie, R. (2009). Order in Choice: Effects of Serial Position on Preferences Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02453.x

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1 Comment

Filed under About Research

One response to “Is the First Spot Always Best in a Preference Test?

  1. salas

    Seems that in all cases, it sucks to be in the middle.

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