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Examining Primacy as an Identifier of Salience


  • This work was supported in part by a grant to Amy Demorest from the Amherst College Faculty Research Award Program, funded by the Dean of the Faculty at Amherst College, and by a Post-Baccalaureate Summer Research Fellowship to Jareb Gleckel from Amherst College. We are indebted to Milica Djuric, Kelsey Sommers, and Milena Dabova for their assistance in conducting this research, and to Paul Crits-Christoph and Robert Gallop for their statistical advice. We thank Angelina Sutin and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.


This article examines whether the first things people report in narrative accounts represent themes of particular importance to them. In two studies, college students recounted autobiographical memories in an interview setting (Study 1: N = 56; Mage = 19.4; 29 male, 27 female; 48.2% Caucasian, 17.9% Asian, 14.3% African American, 10.7% Hispanic/Latino; Study 2: N = 40; Mage = 18.7; 27 female, 13 male; 57.5% Caucasian, 15% Asian, 12.5% Hispanic/Latino, 7.5% African American). Participants reported happy and sad memories (Study 1) or memories of any emotional type (Study 2), and narrative themes were identified from these memories using standard categories of emotion-eliciting events. Study 2 included a follow-up task one month later in which participants rated the importance of these themes. The themes from the first memories recurred in subsequent memories significantly more often than would be expected by chance, and this recurrence was not a function of the order of memories, the participant's gender, or the type of theme. Furthermore, the themes from the first memories were rated as significantly more important than other themes in the follow-up task. These findings provide strong empirical evidence that primacy identifies important material in the context of narrative analysis.