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Study reveals people most often choose first option presented

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JULY 11, 2012

A recently published study co-authored by a UC Berkeley Haas School of Business assistant professor finds that humans express implicit preferences for the first experience in a series of two or more presented options.

The study, published on June 27, was conducted by Dana Carney, an assistant professor in the Haas Management of Organizations Group, and Mahzarin Banaji, head tutor of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

Titled “First Is Best,” the study was comprised of a series of experiments. As Banaji explained, it was conducted in a very simple and robust manner.

“In life, we knock options down often to just two, and that’s the final, hard choice,” Banaji said.

In the first experiment participants were asked who they would, for example, prefer to buy a car from — “Lisa” or “Lori.”

The results obtained in this first experiment showed that primacy had an effect on the participant’s preference and ultimate decision — if “Lisa” was presented before “Lori,” participants expressed a strong preference in purchasing a car from Lisa.

The second experiment conducted consisted of asking individuals to choose from two pieces of similar-looking bubblegum. The rapid-decision task, in which participants had to choose the gum they wished to consume in about one second, resulted in 62 percent of participants choosing the gum they were first presented with. The deliberate-decision task, in which participants were given more time to make their decision, showed equal preference for type of gum.

In the series’ last experiment, participants were shown mugshots of similar-looking criminals convicted of violent crimes and asked to choose who should stay in jail and who should be released on parole. When thinking quickly, participants were more likely to associate the first criminal with being more worthy of parole in the experiment.

According to the study, “judgments that are relatively devoid of conscious awareness will consistently reveal an effect in which firsts are considered best because firsts are privileged for several reasons that heuristic processes may rely on.”

Banaji said the main result found was that “a robust preference for the first will emerge if the decision is made automatically.”

Alternative research finds the tendency to favor the first choice offered is not only dependent on the time frame the decision is made in, but also on the desirability of the options and on the amount of choices offered to participants.

Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, published a research article in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making in 2009 that, though similar to the “First Is Best” study, found that primacy effects are present but only when people choose between undesirable objects.

“When people were making choices between items that were really good then we had the opposite results, as there was a recency effect,” Epley said.

Though Epley does not completely fathom the inconsistencies across various experiments of this sort, he concluded the results he obtained in his study were due to memory decay and bias — if you strongly like the last jelly bean, then you will not remember the taste of the first one and so you will pick the last one.

Antonia Mantonakis, associate professor of marketing in the Brock University Faculty of Business , co-authored and published the 2009 study “Order in Choice — Effects of Serial Position on Preferences” in which Carney and Banaji’s as-of-then unpublished manuscript was cited due to similar results being obtained.

The study examined “which position in the sequence is more likely to be chosen as favorite in a choice situation.” Participants sampled wine that was, in effect, the same kind throughout the sequence.

Mantonakis’ findings were that across all wine sets, participants tended to pick the first wine tasted, similar to how Carney and Banaji observed the primacy effect taking place in their sequences.

Banaji said the “first is best” result calls into question the belief that choices are based on the goodness of the thing or information being selected.

“It highlights yet another dimension of decision making that disrupts rational choice. It shows that a primitive and fundamental part of everyday decisions — the position of a thing in a sequence — drives choice,” Banaji said. “First is not necessarily best, so we had better be aware of this driving force behind our decisions,” Banaji said.

Contact Or Gozal at 


JULY 11, 2012

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