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First Impressions

The Extraordinary Importance of First Impressions

The first few seconds of a relationship may be the most crucial.

Humans are uncomfortable with uncertainty, or, simply, not knowing things. Such uncertainty is particularly present during initial interactions with strangers. These claims, forwarded by Berger and Calabrese (1975), were fundamental to their Uncertainty Reduction Theory. Their arguments were that humans were uncomfortable not knowing things, and therefore, communicated to reduce uncertainty.

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This explains why, during initial interactions, we routinely ask questions of a new conversational partner. Such questions may include the person’s name, where they are from, and the type of work that he or she does. We also nonverbally seek to reduce uncertainty by categorizing them based on sex, approximate age, accent, etc.

A common thing that individuals look for during this uncertainty reduction process is similarity. Although society often embraces the mantra that "opposites attract," years of research document that similarities, not differences, produce feelings of attraction. In fact, being dissimilar can produce a fatal attraction, the process in which what was initially attractive can actually become exactly what causes your relationship to fail.

During our initial interactions, though, theorists also argue that we form a perception of how costly or rewarding a future relationship with the other person would be (Predicted Outcome Value Theory, Sunnafrank). Essentially, during an initial conversation, we form a positive or negative judgment about forming a future relationship with a person. The theory argues, and research supports, that if we form positive judgments, then we will communicate more with this person and seek more information. Conversely, if we form a negative judgment, we will restrict our communication (see Horan et al., 2009; Mottet, 2000).

Recent psychological research has examined a process called thin-slicing (see Ambady). This experimental line of work documents that we may need just a few seconds to form an accurate and reliable judgment about another person. These compelling findings were the basis for Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book, Blink, which summarized much of the research. More recent work has studied thin-slicing and Predicted Outcome Value together, identifying what was initially attractive in the opening seconds of a speed date based on communication. (I summarized this work, by myself and Marian Houser, here).

Whether from a Predicted Outcome Value, Uncertainty Reduction Theory, or thin-slicing perspective, the research collectively indicates that you may only get a few seconds to make a first impression that is tied to the future of your relationship. The verbal and nonverbal messages, identified by Houser and myself, are key in these initial interactions. Be mindful of these processes, and how you may best make a first impression as you engage in the dating and mating process.

Follow me on Twitter @TheRealDrSean for more research-based relationship and communication commentary.

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