Recency Bias in Feedback Relationships

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As students of feedback communication, we know we bring our cognitive biases into feedback relationships. Recency bias is one of those biases, perhaps the most common. Let’s discuss what recency bias is, how it can impact giving and receiving feedback, and what we can do about it.

What is recency bias?

According to the Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, recency bias is “a cognitive bias in which those items, ideas, or arguments that came last are remembered more clearly than those that came first.” The book provides the following example:

“The more recently heard, the clearer something may exist in a juror’s memory.”

Recency bias occurs when we overemphasize or otherwise place greater importance on something primarily because it happened recently. In other words, the memory of it is fresher, surfaces in our mind more easily, and is therefore more readily available as we approach some future decision (or, in our case, a feedback conversation).

As Daniel Kahneman, Princeton professor and Nobel Prize recipient, describes it in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory.”

Recency bias when giving feedback

This cognitive bias can show up in various ways as we give feedback. Here are three:

  1. You hold back giving feedback in one area because your colleague recently performed well in another area.
  2. You overemphasize giving negative feedback to a colleague who has been struggling recently but who has an otherwise incredible tenure of success.
  3. You held giving feedback until a quarterly performance review (not recommended) but also didn’t capture notes throughout the quarter. The result? You provide feedback only on the most recent performance of your colleague.

Recency bias when receiving feedback

It plays a role here as well. Here are three ways, among many others:

  1. On Monday, your manager made a comment that rubbed you the wrong way. On Tuesday, they give you constructive feedback that could help your career. But you couldn’t take it in because their comment from Monday was all you could think about.
  2. You recently received a batch of positive feedback about your product. You overemphasize this feedback, and it causes you to deprioritize taking action on the great negative feedback you received the week prior.
  3. Your most recent quarterly performance review didn’t go so well. The night before your next one, even though you’ve made tremendous progress and feel good about your quarter, you can’t sleep at night because that most recent review is front and center in your mind.

Working with recency bias

After we become aware of recency bias (which you now are), the next step is to work with it. I use “work with it” because, like other cognitive biases, it can’t simply be removed.

There are many ways to de-program our habit of getting caught in recency bias, but one way I’ve found particularly helpful is to practice “beginner’s mind,” a concept from Zen Buddhism. As Shunryu Suzuki summarizes it in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

To the extent possible and where it makes sense, it can be helpful to practice beginner’s mind by inhabiting the present moment rather than drifting into recent memories. When receiving feedback, practicing beginner’s mind may mean dropping recent memories and instead focusing on listening to understand. When giving feedback, a beginner’s mind can help you drop potentially negative recent experiences with a colleague and focus purely on delivering the most effective and helpful feedback possible.


Before you go:

Check out Morningstar’s Dan Kemp describing how recency bias impacts investment decisions: