Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

First impressions last

April 18th, 2011

Meet HurryThe clichés are so numerous I think they breed in the backs of old phrasebooks. First impressions are everything. First impressions are lasting ones. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

I don’t usually trust clichés, if only because they tend to contradict one another. (Look before you leap or he who hesitates is lost? Absence makes the heart grow fonder or out of sight, out of mind?) The ones above, however, contain more than a grain of truth.

Psychologists have been studying first impressions since 1946, when Solomon Asch published a series of brilliant experiments on how we form our concepts of people. In each experiment, he read volunteers a list of characteristics and asked them to write a brief summary of the kind of person the characteristics described.

At one point, he asked two groups of volunteers to summarize the character of a man described with six words: intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn and envious. The catch was that one group heard the words in that order and the other heard them in the reverse order (envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious and intelligent).

The only alteration was the word arrangement, but the study participants came to very different conclusions about the man described. As you might guess from reading the word lists yourself, those who heard the positive traits first had a far better opinion of him.

Other research has confirmed the importance of first impressions on our long-term opinions. For example, Bernadette Park had a small group of students meet weekly for seven weeks and write a description of each of the others every week. She found that descriptions written on the day the students first met were echoed in all the later descriptions, even though they were based on very little information. Later evidence appears to be interpreted in the light of our early beliefs.

Research has also shown that first impressions can be disconcertingly prophetic of other people’s long-term attitudes: one study found that people who watched three silent 10-second video clips of a university lecturer teaching could accurately predict that teacher’s end-of-semester ratings by students.

This is all very well, and not exactly news. Yes, yes, behave nicely when you meet someone for the first time. I get it. What isn’t as obvious is the downside: don’t let a new acquaintance down.

Robert Lount and colleagues had their study participants play a trust game (I’ve described it previously) in which cooperation by everyone leads to rewards for everyone. If a single player chooses to “defect” (not cooperate), he or she receives the maximum reward possible – at the expense of the other players. However, if everyone defects, nobody gains.

Lount’s team had their participants’ opponents defect in two games out of 30 and watched to see what the players would do. As you’d expect, defections generally led to players choosing to defect more often in response. But players who had experienced this breach of trust in the first few games behaved much less cooperatively later on than those who experienced defections later in the game series – and their cooperation remained lower to the very end of the experiment, despite their opponents’ perfectly cooperative behaviour after the lapse. It’s really hard to fix an early betrayal of trust.

I’ve heard it argued that first impressions are so important that writers can write any old garbage at the end of their works as long as the beginning is strong. Personally, I don’t believe this is trargblargbluh dwudellsif splurk. (Pssst! Did anyone notice? No? Cool!)

2 comments on 'First impressions last'

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  1. Tata

    18 Apr 11 at 11:12 am

    *looks left*

    *looks right*

    *sticks out tongue!*


    Carol Reply:

    Too late. You made your first impression years ago and now you can do no wrong. Suck it up, kid.


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