September 23, 2009

Prior impressions of hostility can actually cause us to see anger on a supposedly hostile person’s face. Photo: iStock

Ask The Professor

Why do first impressions stick with us so much?

This month’s expert, Max Weisbuch, a research assistant professor in the department of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, responds:

Some years ago, Head and Shoulders shampoo was advertised with the phrase “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” The implication was that you better not have dandruff on a blind date or a job interview. This marketing campaign captured the insecurities of consumers but also encapsulates a social psychological truism: first impressions hold sway over time.

There are several reasons for the power of first impressions, which are best illustrated through concrete examples. Let’s assume that on your first day at a job you decide your boss is stern. What happens then?

Perhaps the most immediate impact is on visual perception. For example, recent experiments have shown that prior impressions of hostility can actually cause us to see anger on a supposedly hostile person’s face. So even if your boss is not expressing anger just yet, your prior impression of sternness may cause you to literally see an angry expression on his face.

Psychologists have known for some time that expectations influence visual perception. For example, whether you see a “13” or a “B” in response to seeing the set of characters “13” depends on your expectations. Still, even for those of us who are psychologists, it can be very difficult to disbelieve something we see with our own two eyes. Hence, rejecting a first impression can require a very difficult act—to literally “unsee” what seems like ongoing evidence in support of that first impression.
Even if you somehow manage to correct for your prejudging vision, further obstacles await you. For one thing, first impressions color interpretations of the causes of behavior. So when your boss raises his voice during a meeting, you might attribute his behavior to meanness, rather than him trying to make himself heard over a loud train passing or the fact that he is sick. This interpretation is thus part of a vicious cycle in which the first impressions bias the interpretation of behavior, which further supports the first impression.

Beyond behavior interpretation, memory is surprisingly fragile and subject to interpretation. Even those memories that seem most real (“flashbulb memories”) are vulnerable to bias. For example, well-intentioned people can honestly but falsely remember being sexually abused as a child. It is hardly surprising that more mundane memories of others’ behavior can be biased.

Whether expectations are created via first impressions or some other means, they influence memories of the “gist” of an event. You might remember that the supervisor was ornery in the office today, even if this was not your perception at the time. Again, this biased memory is not only caused by but also reinforces the first impression.

Still, let’s assume that you have somehow managed to “unbias” your vision, behavior interpretation and memory. You will still be left with the actual behavior of the boss. Decades of research have shown that people behave in a way that confirms our expectations about them.

The reason for such behavior is still a matter of debate, but one important mechanism appears to be nonverbal behavior. For example, in one study, interviewers who exhibited negative or positive body language elicited negative and positive behavior, respectively, in interviewees. In other words, interviewees confirmed the expectations that were communicated nonverbally. If your expectations “leaked out” via facial expressions and body language, your boss may have begun to confirm these by behaving sternly. Hence, the true power of first impressions may rest in their ability to literally create social reality.

To sum up: first impressions can alter visual perception, behavior attribution, memory, and even other people’s behavior. In turn, these influences reinforce the first impression and make it even harder to resist. Of course, there are exceptions. To gain a more nuanced perspective on first impressions and social judgment, one should read the studies or at least detailed chapters on the topic.

Nonetheless, it is important to have an awareness of the power of your first impressions. Just as psychotherapists regard awareness as the first step to overcoming irrational beliefs, awareness of biased social judgment may be the first step to removing that bias. 

So at the beginning of a new class, a new relationship or a new job, you may want to remain especially aware of the power of first impressions. In so doing, you might just give your new professor, blind date or co-workers a second chance to make a first impression.

Fur further information, see First Impressions, edited by Nalini Ambady, a professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and John Skowronski (Guilford Press, 2008).

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