Some biases are linguistic, like slant, spin, and only quoting one side. Others are cognitive, relating to how we think about and perceive information.
Cognitive biases — such as primacy bias, priming, anchoring, and recency bias — play a key role in how politicians and the media interact with voters. Here’s how.
Also called the primacy effect, primacy bias is the tendency to recall information at the beginning of a series more often than information viewed later.
This is part of why headlines, taglines, and the first sentences of articles play such an important role in news coverage. If news audiences see something early on, they’ll be more likely to remember it. (Just remember to actually read past the first paragraph!)
This also helps explain why the media rushes to be the first to break a story. If an outlet is the first to inform you, and you are later asked which news sources you use, you’ll be more likely to recall them.
In politics, the tendency toward primacy bias motivates politicians and pundits to take public stances as quickly as possible — if they get their narrative out before everyone else, people will be more likely to include their ideas when recalling the perspectives surrounding an issue.
For instance, after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, Home Depot’s CEO quickly speculated that SVB had collapsed because of “woke” investments. It didn’t matter that there was little actual evidence for this idea; because it was introduced early on, when people were still learning about the story, it became a key “side” of the ensuing debate.
To help in grasping this concept further, consider a standard ballot in which candidates are listed from top to bottom. Research has shown that the first candidates listed are disproportionately more likely to receive votes, especially when voters have minimal information on the other candidates.
Once a narrative has been established, it sets the stage for public discourse. This is an effect called priming, in which prior stimuli impact future responses.
If you’re asked to name a word that begins with the letter “F,” you could reply with “flying,” “framework,” or “food.” However, if you’re asked the same question after watching a documentary about the ocean, you’d probably respond with the word “fish.”
This effect is crucial for politicians, pundits, and others interested in manipulating public narratives. If your news source is constantly discussing abortion, and a pollster asks you to name the top three political issues in America, you'd be more likely than other news audiences to list abortion — simply because it’s top of mind.
A closely related bias to priming is anchoring: the tendency to “anchor” estimations based on potentially unrelated starting points. When people are asked about a topic they’re unfamiliar with, they base their responses on what they've heard previously.
For instance, when people are surveyed about the average American’s household income or education level, their responses are often anchored to their own experiences.
This can help explain why politicians often appear to take extreme positions; if they can anchor the debate well within a favorable range, they can make concessions to the other side without really sacrificing anything important. For instance, the 2023 debt ceiling negotiations began with Biden and House Republicans taking opposite stances — Biden refused to negotiate at all, and Republicans called for repealing several of Biden’s key accomplishments. Each side “anchored” their starting point well within what they may have been comfortable with. In the end, both sides claimed they had “won” the negotiations by denying the other their initial ask.
Politicians do this with all sorts of proposals. If you ask a random person on the street what the appropriate level of federal investment in climate-friendly infrastructure was, they wouldn’t be able to give a very specific answer. But if the president throws out the number “$800 billion,” people’s opinions start to converge around that anchor.
Opportunities to influence public discourse don’t stop there; while people are likely to act based on early influences, they are also more likely to recall recent events. This is recency bias: the tendency to remember the last information in a list.
Because of recency bias, it isn’t enough for politicians and the media to be the first voice in your ear — they also have to be the last. This helps incentivize the 24-hour news cycle; to stay present in viewers' minds, media outlets and pundits must always have another take, another perspective, another framing of the same argument over and over again.
Your short-term memory is valuable mental real estate, and if you’re on the internet, it’s always for sale.
How to Fight Back
These biases — primacy, recency, priming, anchoring — aren’t good or bad. They’re simply how our minds work. They influence politicians and the media just as much as they influence us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t navigate our way around them.
Here are some tips for mitigating the risks of these biases:
- Slow it down. The media is incentivized to present you with news and opinions as rapidly as possible, but you can set your own limits on how often you view them. For instance, turning off notifications on news apps (not the AllSides app, though!) can put you in control of when you expose yourself to the news.
- Take your time. Retaining information that isn’t the first or last thing you see requires attention. To preserve your attention, it can help to set a time specifically intended for news consumption, free from distractions. Giving your full attention can help you read past the headlines and get more nuance and context from your news.
- Get more news. Because people’s short-term memories can only retain so much information, news outlets often focus on a handful of top stories on homepages or in newsletters. However, that also increases the influence the outlet’s choices and biases have on your news consumption. If you take the time to get news from a variety of sources, you can limit the influence of those biases.
Joseph Ratliff is a Daily News Editor at AllSides. He has a Lean Left bias.
This piece was reviewed by Henry A. Brechter, Editor-in-chief (Center bias), Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center Bias), Johnathon Held, Research & Content Intern (Lean Right bias), and Julie Mastrine, Director of Marketing and Media Bias Ratings (Lean Right).