I’m the occasional reader of Stephen King novels, not so much the horror genre, but books like Misery, The Stand, and a few years ago, Under the Dome. I could only hope to be a fraction of the writer that King is, with more than 350 million copies of his book sold, he is in the top ten best-selling fiction writers of all time [ref: http://www.top10base.com/top-10-best-selling-fiction-writers-time/]. In his book, On Writing, King reveals the inspiration for his books – the fusion of two divergent ideas. Take Carrie, according to King –
“I’d read an article in LIFE magazine some years before, suggesting that at least some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena – telekinesis being the ability to move objects just by thinking about them. There was some evidence to suggest that young people might have such powers, the article said, especially girls in early adolescence, right around the time of their first —
POW! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea …”
It is his powerful opening premise that hooks me into his books. His subsequent prose, character and world building, action, and plot twists keep me reading well into the early morning hours.
Yet I am only an occasional reader – why?
It’s his endings.
More often than not, they are an enormous letdown for me. When I read, The Stand, I became completely enveloped in his post-apocalyptic world, and the practical challenges around putting a viable society back together in the wake of such a tragedy. I even appreciated the supernatural overtones peppered throughout the narrative. But the ultimate climax left me wishing I had simply not finished the book. After investing so much time and emotional energy into this 900-page tome, I avoided King for years. That is until I picked up, Under the Dome. As I stood in the bookstore flipping through the first few pages, I found myself just moments later well into the opening chapter as I sat at the store’s café with my new purchase. As I read this even longer 1000-page book, the narrative and setup were so captivating I lost all track of time. The entire premise was so intriguing and watching how society degenerated under these extreme conditions, I had to know not only how the inciting event came to be but how all of this would resolve. Unfortunately, the ultimate answer and ending were even worse than I could have thought possible. Apparently, I am not alone as there are posts on Reddit and Quora discussing this issue [ref: https://www.reddit.com/r/books/comments/2btyjk/what_stephen_king_book_has_the_worst_ending/].
Regardless, the result is that I have yet to pick up another Stephen King book since Under The Dome.
Here Comes the Science!
Serial Position Effect
My experience with King’s books have a deep psychological underpinning known as the Serial Position Effect. Over fifty years ago, in 1962, Bennet Murdock reported on research where participants were asked to recall word lists of different lengths 10-2, 20-1, 15-2, 30-1, 20-2, and 40-1; where the first number was the list length and the second number was the presentation time in seconds. In order words, 10-2 denoted a list of 10 words presented at a rate of 2 seconds per word.
The graphic below illustrates the result from these tests with the probability of recalling a word on the Y axis and the serial position of the word on the X axis (the first word would be in position 1 and the last word would be in the right most position) –
What is clear from this data is regardless of the length of the word list, participants were likely to remember the first few and last few words in the list. It also shows how dominant the last words are in our memory. The number of words and probability of recalling them is substantially higher than any other words in the list.
Remembering the first few words is known as Primacy. Basically, these early words have nothing else competing with them and stand alone in our memory.
Recall of the last few words is known as Recency. The simple graphic to the right illustrates this phenomenon.
The effect of Recency exists beyond word list recall. It applies to our experiences. Our last experience carries a strong position in our minds and how we view the experience as a whole. This is the case with my reading of Stephen King books. I remember the beginning but while I recall some of the concepts and plot twists in the middle, what stays with me the most is the end. Keep this fact in mind while we talk a bit more about Primacy.
Primacy and Starting Strong
If 1962 wasn’t far back enough for our first research article, we’re going back even further to 1946. It was in this year that Solomon Asch published “Forming Impressions of Personality” in The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology [ref: http://thenewschoolhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/asch_formingimpressionsofpersonality-web.pdf]. Of particular interest for us is experiment number five. In it, participants were placed in an A or B group and then read a list of six characteristics that described a person. They were then asked to write their impressions about that person in a short paragraph. Before I show you the two lists, here are some typical examples of the responses from both groups:
- A person who knows what he wants and goes after it. He is impatient at people who are less gifted, and ambitious with those who stand in his way.
- Is a forceful person, has his own convictions and is usually right about things. Is self-centered and desires his own way.
- The person is intelligent and fortunately he puts his intelligence to work. That he is stubborn and impulsive may be due to the fact that he knows what he is saying and what he means and will not therefore give in easily to someone else’s idea which he disagrees with.
- This person’s good qualities such as industry and intelligence are bound to be restricted by jealousy and stubbornness. The person is emotional. He is unsuccessful because he is weak and allows his bad points to cover up his good ones.
- This individual is probably maladjusted because he is envious and impulsive.
What were the two lists?
- Group A: intelligent – industrious – impulsive – critical – stubborn – envious
- Group B: envious – stubborn – critical – impulsive – industrious – intelligent
If you look carefully, the six characteristics are identical. The only thing that is changed is the order in which they are presented. Yet the perception and judgement of the participants about these two people were different. The author writes:
A considerable difference develops between the two groups taken as a whole. The impression produced by A is predominantly that of an able person who possesses certain shortcomings which do not, however, overshadow his merits. On the other hand, B impresses the majority as a “problem,” whose abilities are hampered by his serious difficulties. Further, some of the qualities (e.g., impulsiveness, criticalness) are interpreted in a positive way under Condition A, while they take on, under Condition B, a negative color. This trend is not observed in all subjects, but it is found in the majority.
This starting bias made by the first few words colors the entire belief for the type of person they were reading about. This is why first impressions are so important because they anchor our believes about a person or an experience. Again in the case of Stephen King books, the beginning and premise are so strong, you can’t help but get hooked in. Otherwise you wouldn’t even get past the first pages and the book would go unread. In the latter case, there is no opportunity for recency because you never get past the beginning.
Putting Recency and Primacy to Work @ Work!
In order to transform your workday, you need to manage your day to start strong and end even stronger. That means, your first activity of the day should be something that you are really enjoy doing – a hook if you will. This is not the time to do the worst task you have planned for the day. How you start will affect the rest of your day and the energy you bring to it.
Similarly, end your day with something powerfully positive. For some this might be a 1:1 with a favorite mentor, completing a particularly satisfying action item, it might mean working out at your company gym, or in my case, walking to the parking garage with my best friend at work and laughing all the way to my car. These final activities at work are the ones that will weigh the most in your memory, they will affect your mood and how you both view your day and your work. The opposite is also the case. If you end the day on a horrible event, meeting, interaction, or project, this will negatively paint the entire day’s experience and you will start to see your work as nothing but negative.
If for some reason, you can’t adjust your calendar each day to take advantage of Primacy and Recency, make sure you use Prediction and Anticipation as I wrote about in How to Love Your Job (Part 1). These can be used in any situation, meeting, event, activity and can greatly alter your perspective for the positive.
Together, these neuroscience based hacks are the foundation for transforming how you see your work and soon you will have programmed yourself to Love Your Job!