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We may be hardwired to go with our first instinct

Say you’re at a restaurant and you quickly pick an entrée. You might believe you based your choice on your taste buds, but there is a good chance that you selected that option because it was first on the menu.

It probably comes as little surprise—being first is best.

Researchers found that when people need to make a quick decision, they choose the first item. And they believe that is the correct choice.

“There is a lot of evidence to suggest that firsts have a privileged status,” says Dana R. Carney, assistant professor at University of California, Berkley’s Haas School of Business.

“First arguments are more persuasive … first exerts a type of power in preference and choice.”

Carney and co-author Mahzarin R. Banaji—professor of psychology at Harvard University—conducted a series of experiments where they asked subjects to make decisions quickly. In each situation, participants selected the first option.

In one experiment, 123 participants picked their favorite out of three groups: two teams; two male salespeople; and two female salespeople. First, the researchers asked participants if they wished to join the Hadley or Rodson teams. Next, the researchers told the subjects they were purchasing a car and introduced them to salesmen, Jim and Jon. The subjects immediately had to select the salesman they preferred. Then the participants learned they had to remake their car purchase decision and met Lisa and Lori. Again, they ranked the saleswomen.  

The subjects self-reported their preference by saying I prefer Lisa or Lori and also participated in a time-reaction test, forcing them to automatically and unconsciously choose a favorite. In both the conscious and unconscious exercises, subjects preferred the first person or team they encountered.

In another trial, the researchers asked 207 people at a train station to quickly select a piece of gum; again people selected the piece presented to them first.

“What we’re talking about is general human—even animal—predisposition to prefer firsts, when the ability to think is taken away,” explains Carney.

She adds a caveat. When people are better informed or have more time to consider a decision they don’t always to select the first. Selecting the primary option helps people as they make quick decisions, which people do to avoid being indecisive.  

“A state of indecision is uncomfortable … having too many choices is called choice overload. You are searching for something to hang your hat on,” she says, and the first option is the easiest pick.

Also, Carney and Banaji wondered if people still select the first if the choice is between negatives. They asked 31 participants to examine the mug shots of two 29-year-old criminals, who committed the same offenses, and determine who deserved parole and who deserved freedom. Again, people believed the first criminal they saw should be paroled while the second should remain in prison. 

“We argue in the paper that we think it is a hardwired [biological] mechanism to prefer the first.”  

The paper “First is Best” appears in the online journal PLoS ONE