The First of These Things Is Not Like the Others

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When faced with a snap decision, people will reliably pick the first option they're given.

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Let's try an experiment. You walk into a car dealership and the salesman shows you a blue car. Then he takes you across the lot and shows you a black car. Knowing nothing else, which car do you choose? 

If you're like most people, chances are you were tempted to pick the blue car. If you didn't -- congratulations, you're a weirdo.

According to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, humans tend to grant cognitive privilege to the first in a series of things whenever they have to make a snap judgement. That's because we, along with all sorts of other animals, are biologically primed to weight first things with more importance. Consider imprinting among birds, or the benefits afforded by alpha status in a pack of wolves.

The Berkeley scientists ran three experiments. In the first experiment, 123 participants were asked to choose a team after being presented with options that were introduced sequentially (the teams in each set shared similar names and genders for consistency's sake). In the second experiment, the researchers approached random people riding the Boston subway and asked them to choose between Bubble Yum and Bubblicious bubble gum after placing each piece of gum sequentially onto a white clipboard. And in the third experiment, participants were shown various pictures, in order, of two 29-year-old Florida convicts that had committed the same violent crimes.

Across the board, the study's subjects showed an automatic preference for the first choice in all the experiments, even when the order of introduction was switched up. For instance, in the bubble gum test, 62 percent of participants chose the first piece of bubble gum over the second when they had one second to make a decision. Even when they were given a little time to think, just over half the participants picked the first piece of gum.

In the experiment with the convict photos, people routinely said the first criminal was more deserving of parole, even when the participants were deliberately primed to judge both photos harshly.

The authors, writing in the journal PLoS One, suggest that the automatic preference for primacy may be embedded in deeply buried evolutionary roots. Picking the first item in a group is just the end result of a mental shortcut that humans developed over thousands of years through family and social culture, they say. That could also explain why actually taking time to weigh a decision often reduces the so-called "first-is-best" effect.

The findings have all sorts of implications for marketers who want you to choose their product over their competitors' -- hence bold, attention-grabbing labels and colorful packaging. But armed with the knowledge that companies have an interest in getting you to choose quickly, you might wind up taking your time a bit more on your next grocery run.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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