Home > Attention, Memory > “Uh sir, pay attention. You’re next-in-line.”

“Uh sir, pay attention. You’re next-in-line.”

Sharing aloud in groups can be a stressful and anxiety-provoking situation. Picture a college classroom, the anticipation of your turn to speak. Your voice is finally going to be heard. “Let’s not mess this up,” you think to yourself. Imagine yourself present in this moment. How much of

what Kevin was just saying on your right could you remember if you were asked to do so? Probably not a lot, and you are not alone. You are not likely to remember the responses of the people who speak right before you do. This is referred to as the next-in-line effect. This effect has implications any time that you are in a group situation in which you are asked to publicly perform.


The next-in-line effect was discovered when Malcom Brenner (1973) performed an experiment in which a group of participants read words aloud while trying to remember as many as possible. After each participant read aloud a practice card, they performed four trials. Recall was worst for the words immediately preceding the words that they had read aloud, also called pre-performance items. In conclusion, the next-in-line effect refers specifically to less recall of that precede reading an item aloud to a group when compared to recall of other items read.

Brenner proposed that participants are unable to attend to what the person before them is saying, and thus, they are unable to store it in their short-term memory. Attention is the ability to focus on and process the sensory information that we encounter. In one theory of attention, the capacity framework model, our attentional resources can be thought of as limited. In any given situation, we can only pay attention to a certain amount of what is going on in our environment because we

Graphical representation of Kahneman’s capacity framework model of attention

only have a limited amount of attentional resources that can be designated to doing so. The capacity framework model of attention was proposed by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Attention and Effort, (1973). I have included an original figure from this book that provides a visual representation of his model. In this figure, the x-axis represents the amount of attentional resources needed to perform a given task. The y-axis is the amount of attentional resources utilized in this task, and as the amount of attentional resources needed increases, the resources supplied approaches capacity, represented by a dashed line. The spare capacity is the amount of resources left to perform another task simultaneously. When multitasking, attention is divided. If the amount of attentional resources needed for both tasks exceeds capacity, performance will suffer. For an interesting discussion on how limited attention can affect driving while using a cell phone, check out http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2013/03/11/cell-phone-use-driving-and-limited-attention/

Later researchers wanted to test Brenner’s explanation. Was the next-in-line effect an encoding problem? If it was, and this reflects a problem of attention, then the effect could be eliminated by consciously directing attention to these pre-performance items. Think about a situation in which you are multitasking, let’s say you’re watching television and talking to your friend on the phone. You are constantly shifting between paying attention to what your friend is saying and what is happening on the screen in front of you. When you direct your attention to the screen, the details of what your friend is saying might not be completely lost, but I’m sure you can picture yourself repeatedly asking, “What did you say? Can you repeat that?” This illustrates encoding impairment because of a lack of attention. A retrieval failure should be eliminated by giving hints. In an experimental setting, these hints generally come in the form of cues. These help you access memories that are stored in memory, however, in order to be stored, this information had to be encoded properly.

In his 1985 study, Charles Bond investigated whether the next-in-line effect occurred because of an encoding impairment or retrieval failure. Encoding impairment refers to a deficit that occurs at the time of storing the information, resulting in no storage. Retrieval failure, however, refers to difficulty accessing and recalling information that has been stored in memory. To test this, Bond conducted two experiments with a procedure to Brenner’s earlier experiments. Instead of task difficulty, Bond wanted to see if providing semantic cues, category names in this case, would facilitate retrieval of the pre-performance items. Reader’s recall was significantly lower than listener’s recall when cues were present. In the second experiment, Bond tested whether warnings could eliminate the next-in-line effect. It was diminished if the warning was given before their first reading trial. However, if the warning was given before the second trial, participants recalled fewer pre-performance words than listeners. The results of experiment 1 and 2 support the next-in-line effect as a problem at encoding. If this was a problem of retrieval failure, the semantic cues should have helped to facilitate retrieval of these words, if they were stored. Warnings eliminated the next-in-line effect if given before the first trial. Participants were able to direct their attention to pre-performance words, utilizing attentional resources that would have been directed at their own anticipatory thoughts.

Potentially you, next-in-line to perform

Bond later conducted a study (1990) that examined whether social anxiety contributes to the next-in-line effect as well as the hypothesis that this effect could be eliminated as a result of state-dependent retrieval. State-induced retrieval refers to having the same conditions, in this case the same psychological state, at encoding and retrieval. When these states match, retrieval is better than when they do not. Retrieval can be state-dependent, especially in cases of drug-induced states and specific psychological states like high anxiety or mania. If information is encoded in a drug-induced state, retrieval will be improved when also in that state (1990).

In this experiment, each participant went through four trials that consisted of three phases. The first phase consisted of participants either reading words or listening. During the second phase, all participants were asked to recall the words read in the first phase while half of the participants read another set of words. The third phase consisted of the participants sitting in silence and recalling the second set of words read. After the experiment, participant’s data was separated by level of social anxiety, based on a self-report. It was found that participants who reported high social anxiety showed a clear next-in-line effect, while participants that reported low social anxiety didn’t. As for the state-dependent retrieval deficit hypothesis explaining the next-in-line effect, results did not support this model. When the state of anxiety was induced in the second phase, this should have facilitated the retrieval of pre-performance words. Thus, the next-in-line effect would have been eliminated. Bond found that high-anxiety participants recalled less pre-performance words than other words from the first phase, even though they were anticipating a second performance at the time of retrieval.

From these studies, it can be concluded that the next-in-line effect is a result of encoding impairment due to a state of anticipatory anxiety. Thus, at the time of encoding, a person’s available attentional capacity is less than that required to properly store these pre-performance words. Their attention is directed at their own anticipatory, anxious thoughts at the time that the pre-performance words are read. However, Bond also found that warning participants to pay attention to pre-performance words, prior to any reading phases, got rid of this effect. In cases in which you have to perform publicly and it is also important to remember what the other people performing are saying, warn yourself before the event begins. Consciously direct your attention to the information being said right before you have to perform. It won’t affect your performance, and you will be thankful for the information that you might have otherwise not stored in memory. This is especially relevant if you are a person who suffers from social anxiety. If you can recognize this potential effect before it happens, you will be able to remember these pre-performance items. This could benefit your academic experience. When participating in class discussions, directing your attention at the person, or couple people before you speak will allow you to properly store what they are saying into memory. The next-in-line effect should also be kept in mind any time you have to publicly speak. In addition to a benefit in memory, paying attention to what is being said will utilize attentional resources. You will have less attentional resources directed at anxious, anticipatory thoughts. This is not saying that it will be reduced, but at least you’ll be paying less attention to it. For another interesting discussion on the next-in-line effect and cognitive implications, check out What Was That? I Can’t Remember What You Said, I Was Next-In-Line. This post proposes some interesting real-world implications of the next-in-line effect!

Another implication of this effect would be in eventual meetings where ideas are being proposed and you’re anxiously awaiting your chance to speak. In this case, it would be important to hear what your coworkers are saying, in case they introduce something that contributes to your own idea or counters it. In a situation that your public performance matters, but it is also important to retain the information that people speaking before you are talking, keep the next-in-line effect in mind. If you can give yourself a warning to pay attention to this pre-performance information before you begin, you’ll be thankful!


Bond, C. (1985). The next-in-line effect: Encoding or retrieval deficit? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(4), 853-862. Doi:10.1037/0022-3514.48.4.853

Bond, C. & Omar, A. (1990). Social anxiety, state dependence, and the next in line effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26(3), 185-198.

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

Kahneman, D. (1973) Attention and Effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.



  1. May 11th, 2018 at 21:09 | #1

    Very interesting discussion here. I can definitely understand how attention selection works. It made me think of inattentional blindness and distracted driving examples we talked in class. Here I see anxiety and anticipation of performance could play a role in attention and encoding after reading the article. This reminds me of the relationship between working memory capacity and negative emotions. It also seems to me that anxiety might impair working memory, which leads to a decrease in information maintained in central executive and episodic buffer, which makes it harder to encode the information.

  2. ylian
    May 16th, 2018 at 16:45 | #2

    Hi Sam, such an interesting post! It reminded me of all the awkward self-introduction moments I had experienced, and I couldn’t remember any fun facts people talked about. The next-in-line effect also happened whenever I had to do a presentation in class. I was usually pretty nervous and focused on preparing for my presentation and had no memories for others’ presentations… Your post also reminded me of absent-mindedness because it is due to the lack of attention as well. We forget because we weren’t paying attention in the first place and the information was not encoded.

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