A new study finds that the later we meet someone in a sequence, the more negatively we describe them

New research finds that unconscious bias could disadvantage people who happen to be evaluated later in a sequence, whether it's job applicants, contestants on a reality show, or Tinder dates.

Imagine you’re the 20th candidate to interview for your dream job, or the 10th hopeful stepping onto the stage to audition for a coveted role. You’re just as qualified and just as talented as those who went before you.

But according to a new study, you might be at a surprising disadvantage, thanks to an unconscious bias in how we perceive and describe others. It found that the later we encounter someone in a sequence, the more negatively we tend to describe them.

The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on February 29, 2024.

The Serial Position-Negativity Effect

The researchers coined this phenomenon the “serial position-negativity effect.”

They hypothesized that when we sequentially encounter people, we focus on distinct attributes that differentiate each new person from those we’ve already met. And because distinct attributes tend to be negative in the grand scheme of things, our descriptions of later-encountered people become increasingly negative.

To test this, the researchers conducted a number of studies. In one, they had 992 participants (recruited from Prolific Academic) describe 20 people based on their Facebook profile pictures.

The participants described the first few individuals quite positively, using an average of 6.2 positive words each. But as they progressed through the sequence, their descriptions became significantly more negative, dipping to an average of just 4.7 positive words by the 20th person.

In another experiment, 987 participants (about evenly split between male and female, with an average age of 42) were shown short video clips of women introducing themselves on the popular TV show The Bachelor. In these clips, each woman tried to make a memorable first impression on the bachelor, often in creative and attention-grabbing ways.

As the study participants progressed through the sequence of videos, their descriptions of the women became increasingly negative: the tenth woman was described significantly more negatively, on average, than the first woman, despite the fact that the order of the videos was randomized for each participant.

And their descriptions also became increasingly specific over time. As participants encountered more women, they focused more on what made each new woman stand out, leading to more unique and ultimately more negative descriptions.

Further Directions

The study opens up many possibilities for future research. The researchers next want to examine how our personal quirks and the groups we belong to might amp up or tone down this negative bias towards people we meet later on.

They also want to see how long these snap judgments stick around, and how they might be throwing a wrench into things like job interviews and performance reviews in the real world.


The research suggests that this unconscious bias could disadvantage people who happen to be evaluated later in a sequence, whether it’s job applicants, contestants on a reality show, or Tinder dates.

So the next time you’re in a situation where you’re meeting a lot of new people sequentially, whether a networking event or speed dating night, keep in mind that your impressions may be tainted by this subtle cognitive bias.

Study information: