The Causes of Human Rights Violations (42): First is Best

Psychological tests have shown that the first experience in a series of two or more is cognitively privileged. The order in which people experience things affects how they evaluate them: they tend to think the first option is the best.

Here’s an experiment showing how people decide that a criminal presented first is more worthy of parole:

Two criminals’ photographs, from the Florida Department of Corrections website … were used. Photos depicted 29 year-old males known to have committed the same violent crimes. Criminals were wearing identical correctional facility outfits; photos were pre-tested to be equally attractive and both expressing neutral facial expressions. …

Thirty-one participants … were asked to evaluate [the] two criminals and to determine who should “stay in jail” versus “be released on parole.” … [P]articipants automatically associated the first criminal with being more worthy of parole (rather than prison) compared to the second criminal. Regardless of which photo was presented first, it was the one presented first who was judged to be more worthy of parole. (source)

This is a form of order effect: people’s choices are often sensitive to differences in the order in which the options appear. (“First is best” is only one form of order effect; in some other cases, order effects show that the last options are privileged). As is clear from the example above, order effects can have consequences for human rights: if people are given parole on the basis of the psychological biases of those who decide rather than on the merits of the case, then equality before the law is done with.

It wouldn’t be very difficult to imagine and test other cases.

More posts in this series are here.

7 thoughts on “The Causes of Human Rights Violations (42): First is Best”

  1. Hm, the text on the picture does not seem to correspond to the content of this post. The text on the picture refers to a political prisoner in the USSR rather than a criminal.


      1. Where did you get this image from? There is something weird about it. It has USSR (CCCP in Russian) on the stamp in the left top corner while the hand-written ‘arrival’ date is 2004 – very weird, as USSR was dissolved in 1991 and therefore USSR would not be used on the official stamps and documents after 1991. The person’s crime listed on this card is treason – ‘enemy of the people’ (term used for political prisoners in USSR). The person’s name is not Russian and is written in Latin which is in breach of usual rules – all names on Russian official documents should be written in Russian (translated/transliterated into Russian if the original name is not Russian).

        However that image brings up Human Rights Violation stories in the USSR and in modern-day Russia – and there are heaps of those. Only a few are brave enough to defend freedom of speech and human rights in Russia. Their work is very dangerous. Lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders have been murdered for their work in Russia. I got some of these brave people featured on my blog at


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