Home > Attention, Cognitive Bias, Memory > What Was That? I Can’t Remember What You Said, I Was Next-In-Line

What Was That? I Can’t Remember What You Said, I Was Next-In-Line

Don’t You Hate When This Happens?

Imagine it’s the first day of classes for the semester. Your professor announces to the class that you are going to do an icebreaker activity to get to know each other. There are probably a few groans and a little bit of fear from the shyer students. You must tell the class your name, your class year, where you’re from, and a fun fact about yourself. The dread sets in as you panic and try to think of something interesting. You don’t want everyone to think you’re lame or a weirdo. You spend the whole time everyone else is talking trying to think of what to say and finally it’s your turn: “Hi my name is Emma, I’m a senior, I’m from Jacksonville, Florida, and, um, I can lick my elbow.” Now you wonder if maybe that was a little too interesting, while the person sitting next to you talks about his summer in Belize. Or was it Nicaragua? You can’t really remember. Actually you can’t quite recall what any of the people before you said. You were so focused on your own presentation that you did not pay attention to what other people said. This is called the next-in-line effect.

The next-in-line effect is the cognitive bias that causes a person to have lower recall for events that happened right before or after a performance (Brenner, 1973). This performance can be any public act, whether it is performing on stage or talking to a group of a few other people. The next-in-line bias was demonstrated experimentally in the 1970’s at the University of Michigan. Participants sat in a circle and took turns reading words off of cards to the group. Afterwards, they were given a free recall task. This means they had to report as many of the words from the previous task as they could. It turns out people have a very low recall for anything that happens about 9 seconds before and after a performance (Brenner, 1973). This loss of recall is the result of the next-in-line effect. One theory for why this occurs is due to the fact that the participant is an audience member and a performer (Brenner, 1973). They have two tasks, so there may be interference from one role on the other. Also too many demands on someone’s attention can make it difficult to properly form a memory for the event.

So why does the next-in-line effect occur? Well to explain that, we first need to talk about how memories are formed. The process of putting information into memory is called encoding. Encoding requires attention; if you are not paying attention to something, then you probably will not remember it (Watson & Strayer, 2010). Our attention also has a limited capacity. Performance on a task decreases if attention is allocated to more than one task (Watson & Strayer, 2010). For example, as Brenner (1973) suggested, maybe attention is being allocated to filling the role of performer, causing the role of audience to falter a bit. If encoding is successful, then the memory is stored in your long-term memory. If you try to recall or remember what you stored in memory, the act to do so is called retrieval. When it comes to explaining the next-in-line effect, it is clear that it is either caused by an error in encoding or retrieval. Trying to figure out which one it is has been the subject of many studies.

In order to determine if the next-in-line effect is an encoding or retrieval error, we should look at some factors that can cause it. Brenner (1973) proposed the effect is due to a lack of attention. This seems logical since attention is necessary for creating the memory. So what causes this attention deficit? Bond and Omar (1988) say that anxiety plays a role. They tested the next-in-line effect and found that people with higher levels of anxiety were more likely to show this bias during a performance. This suggests worry can cause memory to falter. Does this mean that if the next-in-line effect is due to anxiety, information encoded at this time can only be retrieved in a state of anxiety? This is called state-dependent retrieval and it has been offered as another possible explanation for the next-in-line bias. It would contribute to the argument that this effect is a retrieval deficit (Bond and Omar, 1988). However, anxiety has not been found to be the sole cause of the next-in-line bias, so there is probably more going on here.

Same, Kourtney

The anticipation of a performance also plays a role in causing the next-in-line effect. Being consumed by the expectation of your performance can distract you and keep you from paying attention to anything else. If someone is asked to perform without any warning, then they do not show the next-in-line effect (Bond & Kirkpatrick, 1982). If someone is told they are going to have to perform, but they are not told when the performance will take place, memory for all events during this time period are diminished (Bond & Kirkpatrick, 1982). This means that the anticipation about a performance affects the memory for events surrounding it. Bond (1985) also observed that if you tell participants to pay attention to the information presented before their performance (the information that they would normally forget due to the next-in-line bias), they remember it just as well as all the other stimuli. Based on all of this research, it is clear that there is something about the idea of publically performing that distracts us and diminishes our attention.

So the big question this blog post has been trying to answer is: why does the next-in-line effect happen? Where does the error that prevents memory recall occur? The next-in-line bias pioneer, Malcolm Brenner (1973), believed this effect was an encoding failure because the resources needed to encode the present stimuli were being consumed by the anticipation of the upcoming performance. While some researchers have speculated that the next-in-line effect is a retrieval error, Bond (1985) found evidence that it is indeed due to a lack of encoding through his experiments about performance. Based off this research, we can say that attention and encoding, or lack there of, are the keys to explaining the next-in-line effect and that anticipation and anxiety perpetuates it.

Unsuccessful Debate

So how does the next-in-line bias affect our everyday experiences? In the example at the beginning of the post we see how this bias prevents us from learning about our peers, because we are too focused on ourselves. The next-in-line effect can also play a role in conversation, specifically debates. If you are focused on forming your argument, you may not pay attention to what your opponent is saying. Instead of learning and compromising, you just continue to argue and be unproductive, à la the 2016 Presidential Election debates. This can also happen in class when you want to ask a question. You are so focused on saying the right thing and speaking in front of everyone that you do not hear the person before you ask the same question. Talk about awkward… So next time the kid who sits next to you in class forgets what year you are, don’t take too much offense. She was probably too busy thinking about whether to tell the class she has a pet turtle or that her cousin is Instagram famous, instead encoding your graduation year like she was supposed to be.


Bond, C. J. Jr. (1985). Next-in-line effect: Encoding or retrieval deficit?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(4), 853-862.

Bond, C. J, Jr. & Kirkpatrick, C. K. (1982). Distraction, amnesia, and the next-in-line effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18, 307-323.

Bond, C. J. Jr. & Omar, A. S. (1990). Social anxiety, state dependence, and the next-in-line effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26, 185-198.

Brenner, M. (1973). The next-in-line effect. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12, 320-323.

Watson, J. M. & Strayer, D. L. (2010). Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(4), 479-485. doi:10.3758/PBR.17.4.479.

  1. yipeilo
    May 8th, 2017 at 23:09 | #1

    This is such an interesting post! I can definitely understand how anxiety and anticipation of performance could play a role in attention and encoding after reading the article. This reminds me of the relationship between short-term memory and this Next-In-Line effect. The short-term memory only has a capacity of five to nine units; and because of the lack of attention, people do not retrieve/practice the information they receive from other people. As we learned in cognitive class, the short-term memory fades away within 18 seconds and could be even faster with interventions. It also seems to me that anxiety might impair working memory, which leads to a decrease in information maintained in short-term memory and makes it harder to encode the information into long-term memory.

    I am also curious about the Next-In-Line effect on people with dementia. If it is mainly due to lack of attention for information in the environment, then people with dementia will probably show no difference no matter whether it is an anticipation of a performance or not, right?

    P.S. I am a little confused by the difference between scallop effect and next-in-line effect.

  2. vmpaqu20
    May 8th, 2017 at 13:47 | #2

    I cannot tell you how many times I have had this experience! It’s definitely a relevant cognitive bias for college life (freshman year, anyone?). You briefly mentioned one of the causes being interference. I wonder if it is retroactive interference, as it is your prospective memory about your upcoming performance that interferes with encoding–thus, the interference is coming from memory about an event that comes AFTER the cue, even though the actual interference happens BEFORE. Kristofer talks about the relationship between prospective memory and working memory here: http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2014/11/20/1686/ As for not remembering the performances that follow yours, it’s intriguing to me that the anxiety still has an effect even after the performance is complete and the prospective memory is fulfilled.
    Also, I loved the idea of context-dependent memory affecting later retrieval of the performances that came before you–that is, that you might remember those performances better if you were cued by the same feelings of anxiety. But if it’s a problem with encoding, I would think that retrieval is more influenced by the fact that the memory wasn’t stored well and less influenced by where it was stored.
    All this leaves me wondering the reverse of this scenario: if paying attention to your own performance inhibits your memory, does paying attention to others’ performances inhibit your performance? It seems that the fear of this latter inhibition is what keeps us worrying, inattentive to others’ performances, and slaves to the next-in-line effect.

  3. sxu20
    May 5th, 2017 at 21:03 | #3

    Very interesting discussion! I’m particularly interested in the factors that might cause a lack of attention during the encoding phase, such as the anticipation of a performance. It seems to me that this factor could well explain why participants have a poorer recall for events that happened right before a performance, but it doesn’t quite explain why they have a poorer recall for events that happened after a performance. Is it possible that the lacks of attention before a performance and after a performance could be attributed to different factors, just like the primacy effect and the recency effect are explained differently? Or is it possible that this anticipation of performance is somehow “maintained” even after a performance?

  4. krmcma20
    May 2nd, 2017 at 23:17 | #4

    This is a very interesting and relatable post- it has definitely applied to my own life many times. It makes me think back to orientation, where we underwent the exact situation that you described. We had to stand in a circle with the other students in our dorm and go around in a circle saying our name, where we were from, and a fun fact about ourselves. I can confidently say that I remember close to nothing about the information that the other students shared; I was too busy stressing out about what I would say myself, representing the next-in-line effect. It must have taken me weeks to finally learn everyone’s name. This bias reminds me of the serial position curve, where the primacy and recency effects allow you to better remember the first and last items better than those in the middle. Craik’s (1970) study showed that the serial position curve appears only after immediate recall and not after a delay, which would pertain to the next-in-line effect where, right after our dorm circle during orientation, I likely remembered the names of the first and last people to go because I was paying more attention to them. A few minutes later, though, I had forgotten all of their names.

  5. April 18th, 2017 at 14:34 | #5

    Interesting post. Your discussion of attention reminds me of what we’ve learned about dichotic listening in PS232. Because attention is a limited resource, it is restricted by the amount of info we can focus on at a particular time. Whatever is left unattended will not be encoded and stored in memory. During a dichotic listening task, participants are presented with separate auditory stimuli in each ear through headphones. The participants are then asked to repeat one of the messages from a single ear. The competing message from the other ear is lost because it was not attended to, although it may have been perceived as present. I really like your (very relatable) example in the opening paragraph because it demonstrates a real world dichotic listening task. While auditory input is still coming in from the other students’ introductions, their messages are lost because you are too focused on what you will say when your turn comes around. In other words, you fail to encode and remember their information because you only attended to your own thoughts in anticipation of presenting.

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