07/09/2012 04:53 pm ET

What We Really Think About Being First

Why do we always like what's first?

Perhaps it's because we think first always equals best, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.

A new study in the journal PLoS ONE suggests people typically prefer and choose things that are presented first -- even in circumstances when we know logically that the order is simply a matter of chance.

Researchers conducted three experiments for the study. The first included 123 people who were introduced to two teams of people, two male salespeople and then two female salespeople. The study participants were asked to choose, out of each pair, from whom they wanted to purchase a car. The researchers found that study participants were more likely to prefer the first person or team in the pair.

In the second experiment, researchers had 207 study participants rapidly pick one of two pieces of bubble gum. Researchers found that, again, people were more likely to rapidly decide on the gum presented first.

In the third experiment researchers had 31 people look at pairs of mugshots of convicted criminals. The study participants were asked to pick which of the two people presented in the mugshots should have parole, instead of going to prison. The researchers found that even when the study participants were presented were of the same age, had the same expression and committed the same kind of crime, they were more likely to pick the first person presented to have parole.

Researchers offered up some potential reasons for our preference for No. 1 in the study. One possible explanation, they wrote, is that "a primacy effect on preference may have derived from positivity attributed to first experiences not leading to harm." Another reason is that in the animal kingdom (and historically), being first means you get to eat first or be served first.

This study adds to a body of research on how, and why, we make the decisions that we do. In 2009, The Telegraph reported on research showing the exact part of the brain that's integral in decision-making, a region called the caudate nucleus.

For the study, participants were asked to imagine a vacation to one of 80 different destinations while University of College London researchers examined their brain activity. The Telegraph explained how the researchers conducted the study:

After rating how much they would like to travel to each location, participants were asked to decide between similarly rated options, for instance Greece or Thailand. They then imagined and rated each location again during a second brain scan. Volunteers tended to choose the destination that most activated the caudate nucleus.


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