There is no shortage of advice reminding us of the importance of making a great first impression, and there are various studies highlighting just how quickly we usually render that first impression about someone. What’s more this can also happen in job interviews, with a recent study showing that more experienced interviewers tend to make their judgements much faster.
So it’s fair to say that first impressions matter, but can you change ones that have already formed? Can you earn a second chance if your first impression kinda stank? That was the question posed by a recent study published via Cornell University.
Changing first impressions
Participants in the study were presented with a scenario that was designed to get their blood boiling. The scenario involved a man invading the property of his neighbours. The scenario was played out via an array of screens, with each screen matching up the story with a picture of the man himself and a description of his evil deeds.
At the end of each tale, the participants were asked to rate the man (called Francis). Not surprisingly, most regarded him as rather mean, uncaring and very unlikeable. So not a great first impression for Francis. Could this initial impression be overridden though? What if new evidence emerged that cast that initial impression into a degree of doubt?
The challenge for Francis was that the initial story about his deeds had developed an implicit judgement about him, that was by and large negative. This was proven by an experiment whereby people were asked to rate items as they flashed on the screen. Unbeknown to the participants however, some of the images were preceded by an image of Francis (albeit just for a tiny fraction of a second). Lo and behold, the pictures that were preceeded by Francis were rated more negatively than the rest.
The implicit judgements we make about others
This kind of implicit judgement is often the trickiest to change, because it can often linger on, even if your head tells you that your perception of the person is wrong, your heart over rules your head. For instance, in the study, even a heroic deed such as saving a baby from an onrushing train wasn’t enough to shift the impression that Francis was a wrong ’un. The researchers believe it would take quite a few good deeds to outweigh a bad first impression.
Unless that is, we are given some new information that prompts us to regard the initial information upon which our judgement was made in a new light. For instance, when participants were told that Francis was actually only entering buildings that were on fire, and that some of the prized possessions that he’d ’rescued’ included children, this prompted a shift in both explicit and implicit judgements about the man, with most subsequently regarding him quite positively.
Judging fast and slow
The two forms of thinking were highlighted in the groundbreaking work of Daniel Kahneman, and a second experiment explored how judgements form in the implicit and explicit modes of thought. Participants were asked to remember an 8 digit number whilst also judging Francis. When their brain was occupied with the memory task, their perceptions of Francis remained negative, even with the fresh information.
In other words, for us to change our opinion about someone, we need to activate the working memory part of our brain to do so, and if we’re preoccupied with something, or even stressed out, then that is less likely to happen.
It does remind us however, that first impressions don’t have to be fatal, and they can be changed, albeit with quite a bit of effort.
Are you quick to judge people? Do you always think that your first impression is correct? Do you now think that perhaps you might be wrong about people more often than you think?