Beware the Recency Effect

I’ve written in the past about cognitive biases and how they can affect our judgment. One that I didn’t mention in that article is the recency effect, which I find can have an adverse effect on data management, or more importantly, how we don’t use data as well as we should.

The recency effect essentially says if you have, say, a list of numbers, you’ll remember the last few and the first few, but the middle of the list is quickly forgotten. I see something similar in associations when staff is seeking, for example, an expert on a certain topic. Rather than using actual data collected over time (e.g., collecting areas of expertise from members when they join or renew), staff will send an email to all staff (and maybe volunteers) asking “Who do you know who has expertise in X?” [Admit it, you’ve done it yourself!]

While this may indeed result in some answers, the recency effect ensures that most people will name the first or last person they came into contact with who has that expertise. People who were met “in the middle” will be forgotten.

Wouldn’t it be more effective (and more efficient) to be capturing that data over time and then just querying the database when the question is asked? Implementing a standard data collection policy that gathers this information over time will ensure you don’t fall victim to the recency effect.

About Wes Trochlil

For over 30 years, Wes has worked in and with dozens of associations and membership organizations throughout the US, ranging in size from zero staff (all-volunteer) to over 700. In that time Wes has provided a range of consulting services, from general consulting on data management issues to full-scale, association-wide selection and implementation of association management systems.

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