“Primacy Effects on Impression Formation”

by Young K. Lee

California State University, Fullerton

Primacy effects on personality impression formation should dictate that the first words on a list of words would have a stronger effect than subsequent words when forming personality impressions. Although the results showed a tendency towards expectations, the effect was not significant. The results were more surprising when an opposite effect was found when the word list contained strong unfavorable words, suggesting that strong unfavorable words may overwhelm all favorable words on the list regardless of order.

Primacy Effects on Impression Formation

First impressions are considered very important. It is very common to hear people talk about the importance of giving a good first impression because that very first moment in which we meet someone new, we are showing them the kind of person we are most likely to be. Whether we are meeting our possible love interest or our new boss for the first time, the first impression formed by them will probably dictate our likelihood of getting what we need from them. Then, how are personality impressions formed? Do first impressions have a much greater impact on the judger than subsequent impressions?

How first impressions are formed has been a subject of interest by many researchers in the area of psychology. Past research in this subject suggests that primacy effects exist in impression formation (e.g. Jones & Goethals, 1972; Anderson & Hubert, 1963; Stewart, 1965). Asch’s experiments on formations of personality impression suggested that when adjectives describing a person are presented in sequence, the first adjectives have more impact than the later ones. The same words used to describe a person could yield very different ratings of that person depending on the order in which the words were presented. When adjectives with more positive meaning were given first followed by words with less positive meaning, the participants tended to rate that person more positively; but when the order was reversed, participants tended to judge that person less positively (Asch, 1946).

The present study sought to investigate the effects of order on impression formation by using the same words from one of Asch’s 1946 study. In addition, words with stronger meanings borrowed from Birnbaum’s 1974 study were used to compare the effects that these words may create. Similar results obtained by Asch and others were expected on the study, that is, the first words presented would have more impact then subsequent adjectives on rating likeableness of that person.


The experiment was conducted via the Internet. The participants were exposed to a series of adjectives describing a person one at a time. They were asked to imagine the person being described in order to form an overall impression of the target person. After viewing each set of adjectives, the participants were asked to rate the likeableness of the imagined person using a rating scale.


The participants were instructed that a set of adjectives describing a person would be displayed, one word at a time. Participants were asked to imagine the person being described and form an impression of that person, and to rate the likeableness of the person. After displaying each set, participants were prompted to give a rating of the imagined person. The rating scale consisted of 1 to 8, 1 being dislike very much and 8 being like very much.


Two lists of words were borrowed to conduct the study. The words intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious were obtained from one of Asch’s 1946 experiments. The words kind, warm, understanding, phony, untrustworthy, and liar were borrowed from Birnbaum’s 1974 experiment. Each list was divided in two sets containing three favorable (F) and three unfavorable (U) adjectives. These four sets of adjectives were then combined to create eight pairs with unique orders of displaying.


The experiment consisted of a 2 x 2 x 2, order of sets by likeableness of the first set by likeableness of the last set of adjectives, factorial design; in which the two levels of word order differed in that the set pairs shown for Group 1 were different for Group 2, the two levels of likeableness of the first set consisted of whether the set shown was favorable or unfavorable, and the two levels of likeableness of the last set consisted of whether the set contained favorable or unfavorable words.


Using the computer and the Internet, each participant was assigned to either Group 1 or Group 2 based on their birth month in order to create a random assignment. The site is located at http://psych.fullerton.edu/mbirnbaum/psych466/ykl/months.  The computer displayed each word in sequence for 2 sec. per word. At the end of each imagined person, the participants gave a rating for that person.


One hundred eighty three introductory psychology students participated in the experiment, ninety-six students in Group 1, and eighty-seven students in Group 2. The participants received partial credit as one option toward an assignment for a lower division psychology course.


It was predicted that the first words in a sequence of words would have a greater effect in forming impressions of personality. That is, ratings for the imagined persons would be higher if F words preceded the U words, rather than vice versa. As shown in Table 1, when words obtained from Asch’s experiment were used, the means seem to agree with the prediction. However, the main difference between the opposite orders was not significant, t(181)=1.26, p>.05 (independent-group, unequal-variance). On the other hand, when adjectives from Birnbaum’s (1974) study were used, the opposite effect was found. That is, when U words were displayed first, the participants’ rating was higher than when F words preceded U words. The difference was significant, t(181)=3.89, p<.05 (independent-group, unequal-variance), but in the opposite direction from that obtained by Asch.

Table 1

Mean rating for described persons (italics are from Asch’s experiment)

Word List                                               Rating

Phony untrustworthy liar critical stubborn envious         2.19

Critical stubborn envious phony untrustworthy liar         2.08

Phony untrustworthy liar kind warm understanding           3.66

Critical stubborn envious intelligent industrious impulsive 3.66

Intelligent industrious impulsive critical stubborn envious 4.00

Kind warm understanding phony untrustworthy liar           2.64

Intelligent industrious impulsive kind warm understanding  6.83

Kind warm understanding intelligent industrious impulsive  6.74



Although, when using Asch’s list, the means indicated a similar direction that Asch found in his original study, the results did not strongly support Asch’s findings. Perhaps it was because Asch’s set of U words (impulsive, critical and envious) does not contain words with very strong negative meanings. On the other hand, the results obtained with Birnbaum’s list indicate that when using words with strong negative meanings, the negative words seem to overwhelm the positive descriptions of the target person, whether they are presented first or last. This divergence can be seen in Figure 1.


Anderson, N.H., & Hubert, S. (1963). Effects of concomitant verbal recall on order effects in personality impression formation. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 2, 379-391.

Asch, S.E. (1946). Forming impressions of personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41, 1230-1240.

Birnbaum, M.H. (1974). The nonadditivity of personality impressions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 102, 543-561.

Jones, E.E., & Goethals, G.R. (1972). Order effects in impression formation: Attribution context and the nature of the entity. In E.E. Jones, D.E. Kanouse, H.H. Kelley, R.E. Nisbett, S. Valins, & B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior (pp. 27-46). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

Stewart, R.H. (1965). Effect of continuous responding on the order effect in personality impression formation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, 161-165.