Valley Girl With a Brain

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You Only Get One Chance

Early judgments can trump everything else people learn about you.

I don’t make a very good first impression when you first meet me. I am typically awkward and nervous. It’s pretty awful. I think I’m great, but unfortunately, you would never know that based on our first encounter. 

So, when I learned of a recent study that suggests “even fact will not change first impressions,” I was a little disappointed. According to researchers at the University of Toronto, our first judgments of people are so strong they often override what we are told about them:

“In the study on first impressions of sexual orientation, [Nicholas] Rule [of the University of Toronto] and colleagues showed 100 participants photos of 20 men, identifying them either as gay or straight. The photos had been previously coded based on a consensus opinion on whether the men 'looked' gay or straight, which accurately matched to their real-life sexual orientations. The researchers then tested participants' recall of the men's sexual orientations several times to ensure perfect memorization.”

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Once the participants memorized the faces and their correct sexual orientations, researchers showed the photos to them again and, over varying lengths of time, quizzed them on whether each face was gay or straight.

The findings showed that participants were more likely to make judgments based solely on appearance when they had less time to make a decision. “With more time, however, the participants reverted to what they had learned about the men's sexuality.”

What does this mean exactly? "Not only should people not assume that others will be able to overcome aspects of their appearance when evaluating them," Rule says, "but also those of us on the other end should be actively working to consider that our impressions of others are biased."

In other words, we can and do judge a book by its cover, all the time. And often, we don’t change our minds, even after we’ve read it.

Then how do we make a good first impression?

There may not be any guarantees, but researcher Jeremy Biesanz advises that “to make a good impression, it is critical that it is done in person.”

His advice comes from a series of experiments his team conducted in which they analyzed and compared first-impression reactions from more than 1,000 people who met each other either through 3-minute face-to-face interviews or by watching a video of the person they were supposed to be assessing.

The results showed that while “the accuracy of impressions is the same when you meet someone face-to-face or simply watch a video, ‘impressions are much more negative when you form impressions more passively through watching videotapes.’” In other words, personality traits (e.g., arrogance) shine through both in face-to-face meet-ups and on video, but “the magnitude of positive attributes [is] lower and of negative attributes [is] higher via video.”

The same rules apply in romance — in person is always better. People tend to focus and trust their gut instinct when meeting someone, says researcher Paul Eastwick, so “it is very hard to get a sense of this information when simply viewing a profile [online].” This may be the reason people are so often disappointed when they meet seemingly ideal online suitors in real life. Perhaps, then, it's a good idea to meet someone introduced to you online in person sooner than later, so your fantasy of who they really are doesn’t get too overblown. In fact, some experts recommend not waiting more than a few weeks before meeting someone you discover online.

First impressions in society

The power of first impressions can be seen at a societal level as well — specifically, the effect of racial prejudice.

For example, African-American males are disproportionately portrayed negatively in the media, often pictured as dangerous thugs and criminals. Such persistent negative attention can set black males up to be on the wrong end of prejudicial first impressions.

Trayvon Martin

In February 2012, George Zimmerman, a mixed-race neighborhood watch coordinator, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American high-school student who happened to be wearing a hoodie.

During the subsequent news coverage and high-profile trial, some commentators speculated that Martin's skin color and hoodie were grounds for Zimmerman’s suspicion and reaction. Zimmerman was eventually found not guilty of second-degree murder.

Last November, Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old African-American woman, was shot to death by Theodore Wafer, who is Caucasian. McBride had been in a car accident and had walked about a half-mile to Wafer’s home, when he shot her through his screen door on the grounds that he had feared for his life.

"As soon as one sees another person, an impression is formed,” Rule says. It requires less than a fraction of a second to decide how you feel about someone else. In the cases of Martin and McBride, those first impressions proved deadly.

And yet the research also suggests that we can’t change our first impressions, even when we know the facts. Maybe the solution is not trying to change our initial thoughts, but waiting beyond that initial second before we take action. As Rule and his team discovered, the more time we have, the more we will consider the truth or the facts about others.

Had the shooters in these cases exhibited such second thoughts, they could have perhaps avoided two tragic deaths.

Follow me on Twitter @thisjenkim

Jen Kim is a former Psychology Today intern and a graduate of Northwestern University.

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