One of the many reasons why studying human nature makes for such an intriguing pastime (or career, for that matter) is the frequency with which there's divergence between the factors that we think influence our decisions and those that actually shape how we see the world around us.
Take order, for example. We rarely stop to consider the possibility that the sequence of stimuli we encounter influences how we respond to them. We fancy ourselves too rational a species to be swayed by the superficiality of order effects—too intelligent to permit when something is presented to us to matter just as much, or even more so, than what that something is. But it turns out that order makes a huge difference, whether we're evaluating job applicants or sampling desserts.
How resistant are we to the idea of order effects? Consider a classic study conducted in the 1970s at the University of Michigan by social psychologists Dick Nisbett and Tim Wilson. In an investigation of consumer behavior, male and female participants were asked to evaluate a variety of household items, including four pairs of nylon stockings. The respondents reported which pair they preferred and gave confident explanations for those preferences, citing a wide range of product characteristics in support of their conclusions.
But there was a catch: All four pairs of nylons were identical. Same exact brand, style, color, sheen, and so forth. And so respondents' confident explanations for their product ratings—which focused on the very same matters of style, color, sheen, and so forth—didn't really capture the true basis for their decisions.
What did reliably predict consumer preference? Order. Respondents were most likely to select the pair of stockings on the far right–the pair they examined last when moving left-to-right.
Good luck convincing the stocking shoppers that order mattered, though. In fact, Nisbett and Wilson tried, asking the respondents point blank about how the order in which the samples were arrayed might have influenced their evaluation. In response, "virtually all subjects denied it, usually with a worried glance at the interviewer suggesting that they felt either that they had misunderstood the question or were dealing with a madman."
While our knee-jerk response is to pooh-pooh the notion, a closer look reveals that, on some level at least, we have an intuitive grasp of the potential impact of order.
For example, when watching the Olympics this summer, listen to the commentators for events involving judges, like gymnastics or diving. Almost without fail, you'll hear them voice the conventional wisdom that the first timeslots in a competition are undesirable because judges give lower ratings in the early going, keeping their higher scores in reserve in case someone does better later on. Indeed, empirical research has shown that even among trained judges, the very same videotaped routine is given a higher score when seen later in a sequence versus earlier.
Or if sports isn't your cup of tea, similar debates will arise this summer when it comes to political conventions and the U.S. presidential election. There will be all sorts of talk about which candidate gets the bigger "bump" in polling numbers, as well as discussion of whether it's better to have your party's convention first or second.
This, too, is a question for which empirical answers exist. Decades ago, psychologists examined the influence of order on the impact of persuasive messages. They found that, indeed, when people are exposed to a persuasive message, followed by a delay, followed by another persuasive message, the more recent message has the greater influence on an immediate decision. But when there's also a delay between the second message and the ultimate decision—as is the case in U.S. presidential politics in which months separate the conventions from the election—the recency effect goes away.
And lest you think that the influence of order Nisbett and Wilson identified in the 1970s is an artifact of a bygone era or hosiery-related perceptions, along comes a new study this year to reinforce the power of being last. Once again from the University of Michigan, in this experiment researchers Ed O'Brien and Phoebe Ellsworth went beyond perceptions of Olympic gymnasts or presidential candidates to explore an even more consequential set of assessments: how you feel about chocolate.
In one condition of the study, the experimenter simply stated "Here is your next candy" before handing each sample to the participant. In the other condition, the same script was followed, but with one important exception: the experimenter said "Here is your last candy" between numbers 4 and 5.
Just knowing that a particular chocolate was the last one in the sequence had a profound effect on respondents' ratings. In the next condition, 22% of participants selected the 5th candy they sampled as their favorite. But in the last condition, 66% selected the 5th candy as their favorite. In short, knowing that they were eating their final candy led participants to enjoy it more, prefer it to the other candies, and even rate the overall taste test as having been a more enjoyable experience.
As O'Brien and Ellsworth compellingly explain: "Endings are powerful. Long painful experiences that end relatively pleasantly are remembered better than short painful experiences that do not. A short life that ends on a high note seems better than a long life that ends in mediocrity." That's how ubiquitous the effects of stimulus sequence can be, even if we're reluctant to recognize it. Order matters across a surprisingly wide range of domains—from the athletic to the political to the emotional, and, yes, even to the confectionary.
In other words, in the smorgasbord-like taste test that is your daily social existence, remember to consume each proverbial chocolate as if it's the last one you'll ever experience. Doing so just makes life all that much sweeter.