The Psychology of First Impressions

We’ve all met someone for the first time, and immediately taken a like, or dislike, to them. For most of us, we can’t explain why this happens.

Subconsciously, when we meet someone new, we make a snap, 3-second decision that puts a person into one of 4 categories; i) potential friend, ii) potential threat, iii) potential sexual partner, and, iv) indifference.

Furthermore, once we have developed a perception about someone, it’s really hard to change this view. This phenomenon is colloquially known as first impressions.

What is the psychology behind first impressions?

First impressions are rooted in a psychological tendency called the serial position effect. The serial position effect is explained by the ’primary effect’ and the ‘recency effect’, which relate to the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series the best, and the middle items the worst.

For example, if you were to be asked to recall a list of items in any order, some people would tend to recall the items at the end of the list first and recall those items best. This is the ‘recency effect’.

Among earlier list items, the first few items are recalled more frequently than the middle items. This is the ‘primacy effect’ which describes the tendency for information that we learn first to be weighted more heavily than information we learn later. It is the primary effect which forms the explanation behind first impressions.

A suggested explanation for the primary effect is that the initial items are most effectively stored in our memory because of the greater amount of processing devoted to them (we remember the 1st item by itself, but need to know the 1st item to remember the 2nd item, and so on).

The primacy effect is reduced when items are presented quickly and is enhanced when presented slowly, which is consistent with forming entrenched first impressions by engaging in conversations or observing the behaviour of someone new.

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What is the psychology behind changing impressions?

The reason why first impressions are so important is that they last well beyond the initial moment. We use our initial impressions as guides to try to predict how people will behave in the future. If you think somebody is undesirable the first time you met, you will expect more of the same down the road.

That said, we can change our impressions of someone in light of new information. Behavioural researchers have identified consistent patterns that appear to guide the process of ‘impression updating’.

In general, learning or knowing very negative, highly immoral information about someone tends to have a greater initial and longer-term impact that learning very positive and moral information about someone. As this is the case, bad or offensive behaviour is likely outweigh the good behaviour.

For example, if you observed someone at a football game being offensive and obnoxious, this is likely to trump an act of generosity, such as later seeing the same person in a local park and he/she offering to share their umbrella with you. Research suggests this is because we have negativity bias, where immoral behaviours are more diagnostic or more revealing of a person’s true character.

However, this negativity bias does not always apply. For example, when learning about abilities and competencies, the bias flips as the positive information is weighted more heavily. This is because of comparison bias, through which we place a greater emphasis on behaviours that we deem to be less frequent.

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How is it best to change first impressions?

A Harvard study revealed that it typically takes 8 subsequent positive encounters to change another person’s negative opinion of you.

Given this statistic, it’s not surprising that if we think we have made a bad first impression, it can be very disheartening, especially if the other person matters, for example if they are a friend or work colleague.

Nobody should despair about making a bad first impression. It’s important to realise that an initial impression is just that – a beginning. In our past, we’ve all changed our opinion about someone the longer we’ve known them. Think about people at work who were strangers on day-1, but later became good friends.

Other ways of changing first impressions include actively making repeated, small interactions which can build trust over time. This may be particularly effective with work colleagues who you see frequently and must work together.

Other active approaches include being straightforward with the other person, and directly discussing any negative impression they hold towards you. Reminding the other person of how open-minded he or she is can also be effective as research has shown that when you remind someone of their fairness, they will more conscientiously work to live up to that assessment.

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Written by Mike Firth, GP and Medical Director

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.