Corporate Eye

The Link of Least Resistance: The Psychology of Clicking Behavior

psychology of the easy choice

There are certain behaviors that are universal for all human beings, one of these being our tendency to behave in ways that preserve energy. For example, most of us opt to use the elevator instead of choosing to huff and puff our way up the stairs. Or, run the search term ‘time management tips’ through the Google search engine; the list of over 307,000,000 results will provide direct evidence that we strive to spend the least amount of time and resources as possible on nearly every task we encounter.

Just as humans don’t particularly enjoy using energy on stairs, we also take on energy-saving behavior when it comes to exploring a webpage. Recent research connects a classic, time-tested psychological principle called the Primacy Effect with user interface behavior.[1]

The Primacy Effect explains how, when given a list of items to remember, we tend to remember the first several items more than those at the middle or end of the list. This principle also states that we tend believe that the items at the beginning of a list are more important, credible, and significant than the remaining items on the list.[2]

Clicking behavior, or the act of choosing to ‘click’, or select, a particular link, has been likened to an animal foraging for food. Just as animals scour their territory for food, so do users scour a website for profitable links.  When an animal forages for food, the calories used during the search cannot exceed the amount of calories the food provides. Likewise, users tend to click the link that costs the least amount of energy, or the link of least resistance.[3]

Just as animals strive to save physical energy, humans strive to save cognitive, or mental, energy. Believe it or not, the instantaneous time it takes for a user to read link descriptions and select a link costs mental energy. Research indicates that users utilize the Primacy Effect when selecting links; they select links located in positions that take less mental energy.

Researchers from the University of Western Australia and Florida State University listed a series of links on a Southeastern U.S. hospitality website and measured the amount and location of clicks. The results indicated that the top left column was the most popular place for clicks (primacy effect), with the large majority of users clicking links in this region as opposed to the lower right column.[4]

This study, coupled with subsequent research investigations yielding the same findings, indicates the importance of link position in click-through rates.  Users seem to perceive that links located at the top left corner of a webpage require less mental capital than those located lower on the web page. Researchers offer the explanation that English and most other languages flow from left to right, and from top to bottom. Thus, it makes sense that the first item in a list located at the top left corner the page would be the most popular as this has the lowest search cost, making it the easiest link to click.

In sum, the Primacy Effect should be taken into consideration in the development of corporate websites. It is wise to put the most important or lucrative links first in a menu, and to place this menu on the left-hand side of the page. By doing so, you are saving your visitors energy, energy that can instead be applied to reading about your product or service.


1 Murphy, Hofacker, & Mizerski: Primacy and recency effects on clicking behavior

2 Asch, S. E.: Forming impressions of personality

3 Pirolli & Card:Information foraging

4 Hofacker & Murphy: Using server log files and online experiments to enhance Internet marketing


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