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First Come, First Swerved

By Daniel Hubbard | July 17, 2011

When you are working on a tricky problem, some reticent relation for example, does it matter what information you find first? At first thought, it should not. Data is data and it ought not to matter what was the first bit gathered and what was the last bit. In the end there is a data set and we combine the data into a person or a relationship between people or whatever it was that results from our hunt.

In psychology there is a phenomenon or perhaps a set of phenomena that fall under the heading, “the primacy effect.” Primacy in this case means the quality of coming first. When we think, what comes first seems to really matter.

Calling Dibs on Memory

What is so special about coming first? In contests, that is obvious but what about when there is no contest, only that we came across one thing first rather than another thing?

One area where coming first matters is our memories. Both first and last are the winners when it comes to being remembered. We remember what came first and what cam last far better than we remember what came in the middle. Yet, once first, always first. Your most recent discovery relating to a problem will most likely be replaced at some point and it will drift slowly toward the forgotten middle. That first discovery remains first. It remains remembered. As my kids might put it, being first means it can “call dibs” on the best spot in your memory.

When we ponder a problem, that first bit of relevant information will be remembered. The most recent data will be remembered. It takes documentation and organization to make sure that the rest is taken into account. Memory may not do it.

First Must Mean Foremost

First also matters in how we assign importance. People tend to regard early information as important and believable. The earlier the more important. Psychologists have done tests in which they give subjects lists of adjectives that describe someone or something unfamiliar. The lists contain the same words but not always in the same order. When asked questions to discover their opinions after reading the lists, the order mattered. Given exactly the same contents, the lists with the more positive words at the beginning generated more positive feelings in people. Put more negative words at the start and people’s opinions shift. Beyond simple remembering or forgetting, what comes first affects how we think.

This isn’t so good for research. People tend to believe what they are told first and disbelieve the contradictory information that comes later—even if that later information is correct. In research the order that evidence is uncovered is often somewhat random, so this effect can cause real problems. Unless and until some clearly superior source comes along to “set the record straight,” we swerve off in the wrong direction and tend to stay that way even when, objectively, the evidence starts to clearly point the other way. When things just are not adding up, it might be interesting to try to look at a research problem as if some other piece of evidence was found first and see where that leads.

When I got started in genealogy I was just a kid—ten or eleven. I made some pretty rapid progress on the family that I had decided to investigate. Surprisingly, that work has stood up for all these years. Then I got to a particularly tricky part of my distant ancestry. There just did not seem to be any records for the man in question. After turning up a lot of nothing, I found my first real lead. That first thing that I found was some nineteenth century “research.” It claimed to contain some fact and some passed down recollections. It didn’t claim to have all the answers but it claimed to point in the right direction. I learned a lot from that old research. Not correct information about the problem and not how to research. I learned what to beware. Every time I think back on that problem, I learn a bit more. In this case I can look back and see the primacy effect. It wasn’t right but it came first and so it became information to confirm and build upon. In the end, it was not possible to confirm it. It was not possible to build upon it. It was wrong. It just came first.

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Topics: Genealogy, Research Mindset | No Comments »

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